Running During Stressful Times

Why You Should Definitely Keep Running During Stressful Times

When life gets hectic, it's easy to put running on the back burner, but research shows that running during stressful times is one of the best ways to cope with stress!

In a study conducted by the University of Maryland, people who looked at unpleasant images that induced stress showed that those who looked at the images post-workout had lower levels of anxiety compared to those who sat quietly for 30 minutes. What’s significant about this new 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, home, or school, 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 because your boss yelled at you—but also long-term, because you’re less likely to suffer the health consequences of frequent swings in your blood pressure and stress-hormone levels. To capture which subjects had low negative affect in response to stressful events, the researchers had them rate the degree (from “not at all” to “all the time”) to which a stressor made them feel angry, sad, shameful, nervous, or anxious.

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 percent lower than that of the other subjects. That is, the same sorts of bad things happened, but the exercisers were significantly less rankled by them. Eli Puterman, Ph.D., the lead researcher and a professor of kinesiology at the University of British Columbia, said that exercisers’ edge in this matter is probably a combination of reacting less severely as the stressor is happening and not remembering the stress as severe at the end of the day.

“We are constantly rewriting our memories, so of course, if exercise makes me happy or calm more often, I might interpret the stressor as less impactful as it’s happening but I might also recall it later as less stressful,” he wrote in an email.

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.”[1] 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.

This article originally appeared on Runner's World