skip to Main Content

Why Exercise Stress Is GOOD Stress

By Alexander VanHouten, Master Trainer & Life Time Education Specialist

Picture this…. You’ve slept through your alarm. You throw on clothes, make a mad dash through the kitchen to grab caffeine and the keys, hop in the car only to find an accident on the highway on the way into town. To boot, you hit every single light once you get off the freeway. You’re late, and on top of the 50 emails in your inbox, you have that presentation this morning. And, yes, your in-laws are coming tonight. Buckle down – there will be no rest for the weary today!

Ever been here before? Does the recall alone stress you out?

Days like this will happen whether the mix features family, work, traffic, or travel, etc. Stress is inevitable.

But is it really such a bad thing?

What if I told you that your body has a built-in mechanism not only to handle a day like this, but perhaps even to thrive within the hustle and bustle?

Today I’m not going to focus on how to manage your stress better or even ways to reduce it. This article is about becoming so physically resilient that things which normally stress you out stop drawing your energy, let alone depleting it.

Since we have only so many of them, we should live each day thoughtfully, deliberately – “on purpose.” This kind of intentionality is impossible if we are constantly at the mercy of whatever is stressing us out!  So, how can we get out from underneath our stress load?

Stress Defined…

First, let’s talk about stress. For example, what is it really?

We use this word so often to mean so many things. It’s worth defining.

At a cellular level, stress is literally anything that demands energy output from your cells. Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) drops a phosphate molecule, releasing the energy stored in the chemical bond. Adenosine diphosphate (ADP) is left over, and the cell relies on the mitochondria organelles to produce energy to recreate the phosphate bond.

EVERYTHING YOU DO and THINK demands energy from your cells. Sit with that truth for a minute.

So, every time your mind is racing, every time you pick up your coffee cup, every word you take to heart from the day’s news (or even this article!) triggers some “stress” at a cellular level. As far as your body is concerned, stress is stress is stress.

What makes stress good or bad at this level, however, is the degree of demand at one time and the amount of recovery thereafter.

Too little stress, and your cells become weak. Too much stress or lack of adequate recovery wears cells out by shrinking their capacity to function and hastening their death. On the other hand, just enough stress with time to recover coaxes cells to become more powerful, more efficient, and more numerous.

If we could strike a balance by stressing our bodies just the right amount and not only allowing them to recover, but enhancing their ability to do so, stress would make us more resilient – even down to our individual cells.

So, what controls the intensity of stress and your ability to recover? What controls everything about you? YOUR BRAIN!

What Does My Brain Have to Do with Stress?

Your brain has two very important structures that interpret and remember stressful events.

Your amygdala is responsible for assigning emotional valence (or importance) to a situation, and your hippocampus is responsible for creating a memory of it if it is significant enough. A stressful or exciting situation can cause the amygdala to send a signal to our adrenal glands within milliseconds to release stress hormones to prepare the body for “fight or flight.”

Our hippocampus then creates a memory of the event to advise the body how to act next time.

The more activated the amygdala, the more emotionally valent something is. The longer and more intense the stress response and, conversely, the more conditioned your hippocampus is to stressful events, the faster you will recover, since your brain remembers that last time you faced this stressor. It didn’t kill you after all. You lived and learned.

Think about it. Doing something for the first time is always stressful. If it went well, the more you do it, the more you see it isn’t so bad after all. Each time feels less and less stressful.

However, if it didn’t go so well, the subsequent times are even MORE STRESSFUL. This is not just a conscious process, as described above. It is a mechanism built into your brain that is meant to ensure your stress response is just right!

So, what does exercise have to do with this mechanism?

Exercise: Taking Advantage of Your Brain

The trick of exercise is this. While we’re doing burpees, jumping rope, doing Olympic lifts, etc., we are creating a controlled stress response that lets the body and brain (through the hippocampus) remember the stressful event. However, since it’s controlled and intentional, there is little or no emotional valence. (The amygdala doesn’t flip out!)

In other words, you get the buffering effect without the intensity of emotional response.

When you exercise, you’re making it easier for your body to withstand sleeping through your alarm, rolling with the screaming of your two-year-old, tackling a stressful email from your boss, relaxing into the stares of the crowd during that public speaking engagement, handling sitting in traffic, or managing whatever else you’re going to encounter today.

And since exercise doesn’t last all day (unlike the stress of thinking about your presentation tomorrow), you give your body the chance to recover.

Properly customized exercise offers literally all of the GOOD that stress can give without the bad. These effects are cumulative and long-lasting. The more consistent, intelligent, and purposeful you are with your exercise regimen, the better able you’ll be to handle all forms of stress – no matter how intense or frequent.

Takeaway Suggestion: go move and sweat today in order to:

  • Buffer your mind against unnecessary “fight or flight” responses,
  • Burn through neuron-shrinking cortisol that has been released to help your brain stay fueled through the stress of your day,
  • Bolster the hormonal response that allows your body to recover from stress, and
  • Ignite positive changes in your body at a cellular level.

In my recent article, “Why Your Brain Needs You to Exercise,” I describe a number of ways exercise affects your brain, but in our age of fast-paced stress with no recovery, our cortical structure’s abilities to handle, respond to, and recover from stress may be the most important reason we have to get to the gym.

Are you ready to be the right kind of stressed?

The struggle is real…but it’s good. I’ll see you on the fitness floor![i]

Are you interested in more information or support in using exercise to build physical and mental resilience? Talk with a fitness professional, who can offer additional ideas that fit your individual lifestyle and personal goals.

If you want to learn more about how we design our programs to support fitness and performance using our Core 3 Training™ methodologies

Download the Core 3 Training Manual.

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this article or learned something new, please share the post on your favorite social media channel.

[i] This article is adapted from the “Stress” chapter of Dr. John Ratey’s Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.

The posts on this blog are not intended to suggest or recommend the diagnosis, treatment, cure, or prevention of any disease, nor to substitute for medical treatment, nor to be an alternative to medical advice. The use of the suggestions and recommendations on this blog post is at the choice and risk of the reader.
Back To Top