Researchers have identified eight physical indicators of an individual's stress load. The report offers tangible proof that stressful life events such as loss of a loved one, divorce, job loss, family disagreements, and even traffic jams, all add to stress. And chronic stress takes a physical toll, sometimes with deadly consequences, including fatal heart attacks. Among the stress indicators are increases in blood pressure, suppressed immunity to disease, and increased fat around the abdomen. Others include weaker muscles, bone loss, increases in blood sugar and cholesterol levels, and increased levels of potent steroid hormones, such as cortisol.
From the standpoint of health, what is even more important than how we feel about the stressful events in our lives is how our bodies react in terms of the stress hormones they produce .During episodes of acute stress, hormones -- such as cortisol -- at first protect us by activating the body's defenses through a complex chain of biochemical events. But when these same protective hormones are produced repeatedly, or in excess, because of chronic stress, they create a gradual and steady cascade of harmful physiological changes
Acute stress (in the sense of 'fight' or 'flight' or major life events) and chronic stress (the cumulative load of minor, day-to-day stresses) can both have long-term consequences. Those with the highest stress loads were most likely to develop cardiovascular disease and were significantly more likely to have declines in cognitive and physical functioning. Of all the things we can do to lower stress levels and counteract allostatic load, exercise seems to be the most effective, along with a prudent diet. Moderate exercise helps improve sugar metabolism through the more efficient use of insulin, and helps to end the vicious cycles of stress-eating, over-indulging in alcohol, cigarette smoking, and other unhealthy habits.
The researcher acknowledges that exercise may not be enough to counteract the stress load produced by stresses such as social isolation, poverty, and personal lack of control in one's work environment.
The New England Journal of Medicine January 15, 1998;338:171-178
COMMENT: It is heartening to see NEJM support the use of exercise for stress. 1998 marks my 30th year of regular exercising. I first started in 1968 after reading Dr. Cooper's book "Aerobics". At that time there were only 100,000 of us running, and most of us were on some school team. One of my reasons for entering medicine was to try and use exercise to help people improve their health.
That was a very progressive concept in the early 70s. After many years I realized that exercise was helpful but relatively unimportant for most illness. One's diet has much more to do with staying healthy than exercise. When it comes to stress, I am certain it is helpful, but I strongly believe there are more powerful solutions. Addressing one's prior emotional wounding through effetive counseling, deep breathing work, prayer and spiritual disciplines are far more effective than exercise.