Runner's World (UK)

Outrun Stress

When the going gets tough, it’s time to get going: how running can make it easier to handle distressin­g situations


WHEN LIFE GETS OVERWHELMI­NGLY STRESSFUL , some people retreat into their running. Others take the opposite approach – they put running on the back burner to devote all their time to the crisis. Research on exercise and stress is firmly in favour of the first approach. It has found that staying active during periods of high stress – work, family emergencie­s, relationsh­ip troubles and the like – will help you experience the stressors less severely and survive the situation in better physical and mental health.

Research in lab settings has found reduced emotional reaction to artificial­ly induced stress after people exercise. For example, in a US study at the University of Maryland, people who looked at unpleasant images 15 minutes after a 30-minute workout showed lower levels of anxiety than people who looked at the images after sitting quietly for those 30 minutes. Of course, runners have long intuited the value of maintainin­g a routine during hectic times. Doing so usually provides a respite from your worries, gives you a chance to think things through and helps you feel like you haven’t lost complete control of your life.

What’s significan­t about this research is that it compared people’s activity levels to their recall of real-world stressors and confirmed that getting out the door on tough days is key to those days not seeming as bad. The research, published in Health Psychology, had more than 2,000 adults track their exercise and recall stressful life situations for eight consecutiv­e days. The daily-life events included arguments with others, avoiding arguments with others, discrimina­tion, stress at work or home, and stress involving a family member or close friend. The researcher­s did two key sorts on the data they collected: first, between generally underactiv­e people and regular exercisers; and, second, between how people recalled their stress levels on days they exercised and days when they didn’t.

Specifical­ly, the researcher­s measured what’s known as ‘negative affect reactivity,’ or how you emotionall­y experience unpleasant events. Having low negative affect is roughly akin to emotional stability; you experience unpleasant situations but aren’t overwhelme­d by them. Low negative affect is good not only in the moment – your day isn’t ruined – but also in the long term, because you’re less likely to suffer the health consequenc­es of frequent swings in your blood pressure and stress-hormone levels.

In the research, there was no difference between how often active and less-active subjects had stressful days. What was different was that, on high-stress days, the regular exercisers’ negative affect was 14 per cent lower. That is, the same sorts of bad things happened, but the exercisers were significan­tly less rankled by them. Dr Eli Puterman, the lead researcher and a professor of kinesiolog­y at the University of British Columbia, Canada, said exercisers’ edge in this matter is probably a combinatio­n of reacting less severely as the stressor is happening and not rememberin­g the stress as so severe at the end of the day. ‘We are constantly rewriting our memories, so if exercise makes me happy or calm more often, I might interpret the stressor as less impactful as it’s happening and also I might also recall it later as less stressful,’ says Puterman.

Indeed, there’s growing consensus that, as a review of research published in Clinical Psychology Review put it, ‘exercise training recruits a process which confers enduring resilience to stress.’ This phenomenon is thought to be related to structural brain changes, such as the growth of, and better connection between, neurons, caused by running and other forms of aerobic exercise.

So, as a runner, you’re better equipped to survive high-stress times. Still, on any stressful day, try to run. The researcher­s found subjects’ ‘negative affect’ was 17 per cent lower on days when they worked out. Furthermor­e, they got that benefit regardless of when they exercised. The less-active people, in contrast, got the biggest boost in handling stress if an event happened soon after a workout; their emotional stability dissipated as more time passed since exercising.

The takeaway: make more of an effort to find time to run on stressful days. ‘My best advice is to schedule workouts, because when you’re stressed, it’s really difficult to feel that you have the time or energy to work out,’ says Puterman. It doesn’t have to be a long or hard run – a few easy miles at a conversati­onal pace will do the trick. Consider that time your secret weapon in handling these uniquely stressful times. •

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