Beat Stress

Our bodies are designed to feel and react to stress, but too much stress can lead to to serious health problems. This is where triathlon comes in. Regular exercise relaxes tense muscles, helps you sleep and releases endorphins into the bloodstream


Posted: 23 November 2009
by Selene Yeager

Brain:

When you see your boss coming your way after you've committed some minor (or major) mishap, your brain reads his or her expression and plots a course of action (it pumps out cortisol and adrenaline, which allows you to run, fast, should it become necessary). "That's good in the short term as a defence mechanism," says neuroscientist Dr Bruce McEwen, of New York's Rockefeller University. "But chronic stress remodels the brain." Brain cells bombarded with stress shrink and become cut off from other brain cells. Your thinking becomes muddled, your memory suffers and you become vulnerable to self-medicating behaviours, such as overeating.

Heart:

If you strap on a heart-rate monitor and walk down a dark alley at night (I don't recommend it), you'll see how stress revs up your heart rate. However, if you sit quietly with a book - a good one, that is - your heart rate drops. That variability is useful - it means your heart can respond to different situations. "Chronic stress lowers heart-rate variability," says Dr Tim Church, coauthor of exercise guide Move Yourself. Think of it as having only two gears to tackle the Alpe d'Huez when you need 20. Low heart-rate variability leaves you at a higher risk for a fatal heart attack.

Muscles:

When you're under too much stress, your muscles tighten, ready for danger. That state of high alert can leave you with a pain in the neck, sore shoulders and a tension headache. Over time, your muscles can become knotted from too much constriction and not enough relaxation and circulation.

Autonomic Nervous System (ANS):

Your ANS controls many bodily functions, including heartbeat and digestion. It's divided into the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. The main action of the sympathetic system is fight or flight; the parasympathetic is concerned with resting and digestion. In triathlon terms, sympathetic is hammering down the road; parasympathetic is taking a break at a rest stop. Chronic stress throws them off-kilter, so you spend too much time in ramped-up mode, which can lead to insomnia, high blood pressure, inflammation and even diabetes.

Gut:

When you feel threatened, your body diverts blood from less important tasks, such as digesting your lunch, into your muscles so you can fight back or make an escape. But unchecked stress can lead to chronic digestive woes and even make your belly fat. The stress hormone cortisol typically works in opposition to insulin, the blood-sugar regulator, by promoting the breakdown of protein, fat and glycogen, so you have higher blood-sugar levels and immediate energy to burn, says McEwen. But when cortisol is chronically high, it works together with insulin to create a reserve of fat that stores energy for emergencies. But if there are no emergencies, that reserve increases, as does your weight.


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