Half a million or so years ago, your ancestor—we’ll call him Og—was strolling merrily along through the Paleolithic

forest when he came upon a pack of hungry wolves shopping for lunch. Og’s heart raced, he started breathing rapidly, and stress hormones such as epinephrine (previously called adrenaline) flooded his bloodstream. Nerves readied. Muscles tensed. Senses sharpened. This fight-or-flight response allowed your forebear to spot the wolves before they spotted him and to dash up the nearest tree with super-Neanderthal speed.7 It helped him hang on till the cavalry (Uncle Thag) arrived or break off a thick branch and drop down for mortal combat. Thanks to the stress response, you’re here today. But the same chemical processes that saved your ancestor’s hide may be wreaking havoc on yours. For Og got to exert his muscles when he was under stress, and, if lucky, he soon returned to his quiet life of hunting small game and foraging berries. You, on the other hand, don’t have a band of wolves to contend with. Today’s stresses are more varied, less relenting. They bombard you from all directions. They carve up your guts in a butchery of mile-long tax forms, bosses with short fuses, supermarkets with long lines—and maybe a teenaged son who wants to get his nose pierced. And here’s the catch. You, unlike Og, can’t climb a tree to escape. Surveys show that 60% of Americans feel they are under huge stress at least once a week.1 In other words, their fight-or-flight response is fully activated— hormones flow, the nerves are alerted for action, muscles are primed—but the body just sits. The result? Anger. Frustration. Internal chaos. This is, to put it mildly, not good for you. Chronic stress is known to increase the risk of high blood pressure, clogged arteries, obesity, peptic ulcers, diabetes, and impotency.1 It can cause digestion problems, headaches, and can even, according to a study just published in the medical journal Health Psychology, make you more susceptible to the common cold.2 All told, as many as two-thirds of the problems seen in doctors’ offices may be related to stress.1 How does stress create such turmoil? Simply put, the body wasn’t designed for fight or flight on a daily basis. The stress response was meant to be there to

speed up your system during occasional big crises, like bumping into predators in the forest, not habitual little crises, like sitting at traffic lights that seem to be painted red. The heart was never intended to beat like mad on a regular basis. The blood vessels weren’t designed to withstand the effects of frequent, sharp spikes in blood pressure.7 And the immune system is thrown out of whack when the bloodstream is too often flooded with a variety of fight-or-flight chemicals.1 What can be done? Research indicates—and numerous personal anec- dotes confirm—that people who work out fare better at both coping with stress and avoiding the health complications that often follow stress. Below, experts explain why exercise, and lifting weights in particular, may be your best antidote to the madness of the modern world. Releasing the Body’s Calming Chemicals Let’s start with the clearest connection between weight training and stress relief. Physical exertion puts to good use those hormones released into the bloodstream as a result of the fight-or-flight response. Back to our prehistoric example, that’s what Og accomplished (aside from the obvious avoidance of sharp teeth) when he scrambled up the nearest tree as fast as his hairy legs could carry him. You could also climb a tree when your boss demands that big project be completed yesterday, but blasting out five sets of bench presses delivers the same return: “By working out, you employ the stress hormones pumping through your body, so you’re not left literally stewing in your own juices,” says Jim Vicory, Ph.D., director of sports coaching with the U.S. Sports Academy, a graduate school in sports coaching, medicine, and management in Daphne, Alabama. At the same time, vigorous exercise produces its own set of “juices”—most notably the endorphins. The word endorphin comes from “endogenous morphine.” Just like the opium derivative morphine, endorphins reduce pain, and enough of them can even give you a slight feel-good buzz.1 They also tend to slow respiration and heartbeat. The release of these chemicals is believed to be triggered by pain, damage to tissue, or stress. This may explain why people involved in athletic accidents often don’t discover their injuries until some time after the incident.1 Just how powerful are these naturally occurring drugs? “They can be as effective at alleviating stress as the popular pharmaceutical relaxants like Valium and Xanax,” says Kenneth Skodnek, M.D., chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Psychology at Nassau County Medical Center in East Meadow, New York. “But exercise will produce the superior effect because it leaves you

feeling invigorated and more alert, whereas the pharmaceuticals make you feel sedated and sometimes depressed.” Yet another advantage of the natural exercise-induced relaxants over the pharmaceuticals is you needn’t worry about missing a dose. According to pioneering research at California’s Loma Linda University School of Medicine, when you strengthen muscles and improve your level of fitness, you also condition the pituitary glands that produce endorphins and other calming chemicals. “That’s why conditioned people can deal so much better with stress,” says Loma Linda researcher and psychoneuroimmunologist (expert in mind-body connections) Lee Berk, Dr.Ph. “Whether it’s physical stress or emotional stress doesn’t matter at all,” he adds, “the endorphins will pump out quicker for the fit person, slowing his or her respiration and heartbeat, calming the body and mind.” The difference in the pattern of endorphin release between someone who is fit and someone who is not can be enormous, says Berk. “In a gym situation, a well-conditioned person who starts to work out hard might feel his endorphins begin to release within six to ten minutes. A nonconditioned person might experience a minimal rise of endorphins in the gym, not likely to be perceived, and then he or she will get a greater rise after leaving the gym.” Training those pituitary glands by exercising regularly also means you’re better shielded from stress 24 hours a day. In an upsetting situation, like nearly being run off the road by a kid who thinks he’s Ben-Hur, the fit person will, within minutes, get a good dose of calming endorphins. The nonfit person, deprived of quick endorphin release, will be more likely to seethe away the entire day. Deeper Relaxation, Clearer Thinking Weight training also deepens breathing, which counters the shallow, quick breathing pattern that is characteristic of stress.4 Often deep breathing alone is recommended for combating anxiety. Another popular stress-alleviation technique is known as progressive muscle relaxation. And guess what? Lifting weights naturally incorporates that technique as well. Progressive muscle relaxation calls for systematically tensing and relaxing all of the muscles in the body.5 “Maximum relaxation follows a maximal contraction. If you want a relaxed muscle, tense it first,” says Vicory. In the long run, progressive relaxation teaches you the difference between physical tension and relaxation so you can consciously choose to relax whenever and wherever you wish.5 Weight training can do the same. “Lifting puts you more in touch with your body, and that gives you greater control over your mind,” says Vicory.

Weight lifters enjoy greater relaxation even at night. The sheer expenditure of energy allows for better sleep. And people with a higher proportion of lean body mass, research shows, sleep best of all.6 A number of studies show that regular exercisers both fall asleep faster and sleep more deeply. Studies of athletes and physically fit older people reveal that they awaken less frequently during the night and spend more time in deep delta sleep than inactive folks.6 “Those who enjoy good delta sleep wake up the next morning feeling more relaxed, refreshed, and alert,” says psychologist Gregg Amore, Ph.D., director of counseling at Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales in Pennsylvania and 1997 AAU Grandmasters Mr. America. Weight trainers have other advantages when it comes to alertness: if you’ve ever spotted people on the bench press, you may have noticed faces often turn red after a few good reps, an indication of increased blood flow to the extremities. Inside your head, that means more blood, carrying more oxygenrich blood cells to the brain. Concurrently, research shows that exercise increases secretion of chemicals in the brain, such as norepinephrine, which serve as neurotransmitters, sending signals from nerve to nerve.3,4 “The combination of the added oxygen, the boost in neurotransmitters, and the better sleep sets up the chemistry that allows for greater mental sharpness, more rational thinking, and the ability to cope rationally with life’s stressful challenges,” says Amore. A Stronger Self-Image A part of the exercise-stress connection, an important part, has more to do with self-perception than with brain chemicals. Chronic stress or anxiety is often linked to low self-esteem. Weight lifting quite simply helps build confidence. It gives you a feeling of control over your life and a sense of accomplishment, not to mention pride in your appearance. Of course, any exercise might do that... “but with weight training, you can see the results a lot faster,” says Vicory. “A guy who plays golf or tennis may have a hard time seeing how he has improved over the course of several months, but if you were to ask a weight lifter what he or she could bench several months ago as opposed to today, you’d get a very clear answer,” he says. “The lifter will also be much more likely to see the results of exercise simply by glancing in a mirror.” Other people are likely to see the physical results of your weight training too. And you’ll probably start hearing positive remarks. “Weight lifting, as it improves muscle structure and physique, helping both men and women look more fit and healthy, is very likely going to improve the sense of self,” says Dr. Skodnek. This improved sense of self, he adds, is then going to help reduce stress in all areas

of your life, especially in the social arena. “There’s an enormous boost in confidence that comes with strength gains.” Another simple-yet-elegant way in which exercise annihilates stress is by diverting your thoughts from whatever is worrying you. So instead of obsessing wildly about why the boss wants to see you in his office tomorrow morning or how much it’s going to cost to fix your car, you’re thinking about how fluidly you can raise those 40-lb dumbbells over your head precisely one dozen times. But why bother with weights? Why not just flop down on your couch, kick your feet up, and flick on The Simpsons for a little distraction? You could, but it wouldn’t work nearly as well as exercise. Studies prove it. One large review of the scientific literature done back in 1990 found that exercise was hands down more powerful and effective for reducing negative mood than were sedentary leisure activities.3 What’s missing from the scientific literature are studies comparing the diversionary powers of weight training and aerobic exercise—but some experts say it wouldn’t even be a fair contest. “Jogging, cycling, or swimming involve one continuous, sustained activity, which allows the mind to wander,” says Amore. “With weight lifting, you keep changing the activity. You keep changing exercises and body parts. And each set requires your full concentration,” he says. “Clearly, weight lifting offers the stronger dose of diversion.” Maximizing the Benefits Add up all of the above, and there’s no refuting that weight training is one powerful stress reliever. And that’s to say nothing of the other emotional improvements that have been linked to pumping iron—like the alleviation of depression. And anger. And hostility. “I used to be director of the Intensive Reintegration Unit [part of the correctional system] of Illinois. We had the most difficult inmates in the state. These were guys who were so aggressive, so violent, that even the institutions couldn’t handle them. But that was before I started them on lifting programs, one hour a day” (combined with other exercise and with psychological counseling), says Vicory. “The transformation was incredible. Just incredible.” That’s what lifting can do for the most aggressive individuals. Imagine what it can do for you. Will it eliminate all stress and other negative emotions from your life? Probably not. But it can make you a mountain of calm compared to those who try to juggle what you do without the benefit of weight lifting.

Here’s what the experts say you can do to maximize the stress-alleviation benefits of your lifting program: Work out hard. The harder you work, the more endorphins you release into your system. You might want to schedule your hardest workouts for the most stressful days of your week. If going through an emotionally trying time, consider it an excellent opportunity to up the intensity of your normal routine. Work out early. Exercise has a well-known residual feel-good effect, probably due to endorphins which may linger in the system and perhaps due to its “meditative” effects. This can help you avoid frustration during a hectic day. Hit those big muscle groups. The bigger the muscle group you’re working, the greater the release of endorphins, and the more oxygen flow to your brain. On days of high stress, consider spending more time with your squats and bench presses than on your bis and tris. Illuminate your workout. Scads of research show that sunlight has a positive effect on mood. (Just ask anyone afflicted in midwinter with seasonal affective disorder.) So open the blinds in your gym. Or, if sunlight isn’t readily available, flick on the overheads. Turn on some good sounds. Music you enjoy, whether Beethoven, punk rock, or Puff Daddy, can make your workout more enjoyable and stress alleviating. Share the good energy. Another proven mood buster is having a regular workout partner with whom you can share the excitement of your progress. Do go changin’. The last thing you want to do is add to your stress with boring workouts. Yes, boredom is stressful. Keep things interesting by varying exercises. And if one day you want to skip the gym altogether and do something else, that’s fine. Perhaps go climb a tree—like Og. References Cited
1 2

J. Carey, Stress (Washington, D.C.: French-Bray, Glen Burnie, 1997).

S. Cohen, et al., “Types of Stressors That Increase Susceptibility to the Common Cold in Healthy Adults,” Health Psych. 17.3 (1998) : 214-223.

R. Cox, Sport Psychology Concepts and Applications (Wisconsin: Brown & Benchmark Publishers, 1997).

4 A. 5

Feinstein, Training the Body to Cure Itself: How to Use Exercise to Heal (Pennsylvania: Rodale Press, 1992). J. Feltman, The Prevention How-to Dictionary of Healing Remedies and Techniques (Pennsylvania: Rodale Press, 1992).

S. Goldfinger, editor, Harvard Health Letter (Boston: Harvard Medical School Health Publication Group, Dec. 1998).

R. Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: A Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping (New York: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1994).

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