Does physical exercise help or aggravate the problem?

This may sound familiar to you, surely someone you know told you on a specific day that he was going to the gym to give himself an intense planned beating with intention. The reason? Knowing that later he would have a difficult meeting at work, an overly long dinner with his in-laws, or a birthday surrounded by a good number of creatures overwrought by the sugar high that they are getting into their bodies. There is nothing new in the use of exercise as a means of coping and relieving stress from other areas of life, but what we need to look at is whether that dose of intense exercise used in isolation like emergency paracetamol is enough. , and if it really works.

How the stress response works

When humans experience stress, it doesn’t matter whether it’s due to physical exercise or the panic of speaking in public, there is a physiological response that activates immediately our sympathetic nervous system leading to the release of epinephrine and norepinephrine and a subsequent increase in heart rate and alertness. In a matter of seconds a lot of complicated things happen, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis) is activated. The hypothalamus (a region of the brain just above the brain stem) ‘instructs’ the pituitary gland to secrete a hormone into the bloodstream which then sends signals to the adrenal glands on top of the kidneys to in turn secrete glucocorticoids such as cortisol. Complicated to understand no matter how much you read, but keep in mind that stress ends up generating cortisol. What is cortisol?

Cortisol is a hormone that physically prepares you for fight or flight. Elevated cortisol levels in the bloodstream cause an increase in blood pressure, heart rate, and blood glucose levels. At the same time, it reduces the priority and resources available for other non-essential functions, or at least functions that are nonessential at the moment. Your body prepares to flee from a predator and at that moment it doesn’t give a damn if you have a headache or thirst, to give a basic example.

You have to understand that being able to respond to stress by raising our cortisol levels is not only natural, but depending on the moment, it may even make the difference between living or dying, but at the same time it is just as important to have the ability to to return to calm and ‘turn off’ that response from our body. There is negative feedback loop which has already been studied and allows this return to normality. The problem appears in people exposed to frequent stressors (physical and/or psychological) for prolonged periods, since this negative feedback is altered and ends in permanently elevated cortisol levels that may be associated with the development of depression, chronic illnesses, deterioration of memory and impaired immune function.

The routine exercisewhich is a stressor in itself and activates the HPA axis, is Helpful in maintaining normal daily cortisol rhythms and keeping the negative feedback loop working well. In other words, people who exercise daily experience an increase in cortisol levels, but they are also training the mechanisms that allow cortisol levels to come back down.

So is isolated exercise beatings worth anything?

Anyone who has done intense exercise knows that afterwards it gives you a certain state of tranquility that makes you handle stressful situations better. The simplest and most logical thing is to think that it has to do with fatigue ‘I’m so exhausted that I don’t have the energy to get upset about anything’. The truth is that this is more due to a phenomenon referred to in different theoretical models such as ‘adaptation to cross stressors’, which means that repeating a specific stress situation sensitizes the response of the HPA axis to similar stressors. In other words, exercise activates the HPA axis and its negative feedback loop, so activation of the HPA axis to a post-exercise stressor is smoothed out, less upsetting.

Researchers from the Columbia University School of Kinesiology wanted to show if there was a dose-response relationship between the intensity of the exercise and the cortisol level to a subsequent psychosocial challenge, which in other words would confirm or deny whether a good beating in the gym is really worth putting up with your boss all day. The study was small and there were no women in the sample, who were excluded not because of sexism, but to avoid distortions in any conclusion derived from the large cortisol fluctuations that occur during the different phases of the menstrual cycle; He also did not delve into how differences in exercise modality or duration might affect them, but some conclusions can be drawn.

The study was carried out with a group of 83 young male subjects (around 21 years old, although some teachers also participated) divided into three groups: one subjected to light intensity exercise, another moderate intensity and another high intensity. All groups were asked to walk or run at their prescribed intensity level for 30 minutes, transition to a cool-down period with 5 minutes of walking, and then sit for 45 minutes. Immediately afterwards they had to complete the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST), which involves public speaking and doing some math in front of a group of testers. After the TSST, the subjects sat again for 70 min. Throughout this entire experimental protocol, 14 saliva samples were taken to analyze salivary cortisol levels.

This image captures the oscillations in cortisol levels observed in the study from the School of Kinesiology at Columbia University.  The upper graph shows the mean of the three groups.  The lower ones show the response in the cortisol levels of the people who performed light, medium and intense exercise, respectively.  The latter had a flatter curve.
This image captures the oscillations in cortisol levels observed in the study from the School of Kinesiology at Columbia University. The upper graph shows the mean of the three groups. The lower ones show the response in the cortisol levels of the people who performed light, medium and intense exercise, respectively. The latter had a flatter curve.

The researchers found, unsurprisingly, that subjects doing high-intensity exercise experienced larger overall cortisol responses (rises) during exercise. After the 45-min rest period, this group began the TSST with higher salivary cortisol levels than the moderate or light groups, but those levels were less reactive and peaked lower in comparison. The stress response to psychosocial challenge (comparable to a meeting, a tense conversation with your partner, or a complicated task) was reduced by training harder 45 minutes earlier than the other groups..

Practical application

These data come to confirm that feeling that we all have for which we have established a connection between hard training and better coping with the stressful situations of that day. If you usually train at the end of your workday as a way to dissipate or burn off the stress accumulated during the day, you can carry out your own experiment, it is as simple as trying to change the time and see what happens training at the beginning or in the middle of the day, just before of some more or less stressful but routine activity (such as a regular daily meeting, for example), in this way you will be able to compare your own level of stress against what you had before. I am one of those who trains first thing in the morning practically every day and I can assure you that when I fail, despite being more physically rested, the whole day becomes much more uphill for me. Test and compare, although the priority should always be training, any time is better than none. Cheer up and may the force be with you.

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Elton Gardner

Elton Gardner is a seasoned writer and editor for He is a graduate of a prestigious journalism school and has contributed to numerous newspapers and magazines. Elton is an expert in various fields, including sports, entertainment, and technology. He is widely respected for his insights and engaging writing style. As an editor, Elton oversees a team of writers and ensures the website stays current with the latest trends and breaking news. His writing is characterized by its depth, clarity, and accessibility. Elton's spare time is spent with his family, playing sports, reading, and traveling to explore new cultures. With his talent, experience, and dedication, Elton Gardner is a prominent figure in online media and will continue to make waves in the years to come.

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