Rethinking Retirement  

Exercise and Stress

Exercise and the stress response

By Mark Gomez

The other day while snowshoeing, I rounded a bend on the trail and—whoa!—there in front of me was a herd of 20 deer, including two bucks with huge sets of antlers.

Now I know what you’re thinking: Big deal, Mr. Health and Fitness meets Bambi and friends. So what?

I guess that’s what I would have thought before, too. However, being alone in the mountains with no other option but to proceed past the herd gave me some pause. What if the bucks became overly protective of their harem? I wouldn’t stand a chance against those antlers.
As I inched onward, I noticed that my heart rate increased. And although I wasn’t really aware of it, my mouth undoubtedly became dry, my body began to perspire more, my pupils enlarged, and my hair stood on end. This is the classic response to becoming unexpectedly on edge from a potential threat.
In today’s world, we don’t often experience such close encounters with natural threats. However, you probably have experienced other modern threats, like being late for an appointment only to be delayed at a railroad crossing, or seeing the flashing lights of a state patrol car behind you.
During these and an infinite number of other stressful moments, our bodies react in the same way—the same as if we happened upon Mr. Enormous Antlers and company.
Fight or flight
In 1956, Hans Selye described this physiological phenomenon as the “general adaptation syndrome.” He explained how certain hormones are almost instantaneously released into our systems causing this response. From an evolutionary perspective, the syndrome is considered to be adaptive because it mobilizes us either to defend ourselves or to flee the scene. The hormones that help us are quickly metabolized once the threat has passed, posing no lasting harm.
Conversely, many of the modern stressors that we experience today are not acute, but chronic in nature—that is, we experience them over and over. Some examples include: needing to continually hustle to make financial ends meet, working in an unpleasant job, living with an abusive spouse, or caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease. With these chronic modern stressors, the situation endures causing the hormones to be released into our circulation repeatedly, remaining there for long periods of time. Many of these, like cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine have been associated with the accumulation of abdominal fat and, subsequently, heart disease, the number one killer of American men and women in the United States.
Ideally, we should avoid being chronically stressed as best we can. When this isn’t possible, we need to combat the chronic stress response. Some very effective strategies include meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, visualization, and cognitive-restructuring.
Perhaps the most effective way to metabolize the chronic stress hormones that tend to linger in our systems is to exercise. Exercise not only gets rid of the hormones, but also induces a relaxation effect. This is most likely caused by the increased production of endorphins and enkephalins, natural opiates produced in the brain when you exercise. Additionally, people who exercise experience fewer depressive episodes, feel more relaxed, and generally have enhanced cognitive functioning.
In a nutshell, exercise helps us to improve our mental health in just about every conceivable measure. It also gives us the physical ability to be out in nature, enjoying magnificent sights, like herds of deer.

Mark Gómez, MHSE, MA, ACSM-cPT, NSCA-CPT, is a health educator and personal fitness trainer. He is the owner of Four Seasons Health and Fitness, a private fitness studio in Fort Collins. You may contact him at (970) 556-2920 or via e-mail at

Copyright 2007, Mark C. Gómez, All Rights Reserved.  Republished with permission.

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