The past 18 months have been stressful enough to move a Zen Buddhist to distraction. Amid pandemics, global lockdowns, and the climate crisis, keeping calm and carrying one has been a Herculean task.
Fortunately, running can help – as a number of studies demonstrate. Research on exercise and stress is firmly in favor of the first camp. It found that staying active during times of crisis – be that family emergencies, relationship troubles, or pandemics –will help you experience the stressors less severely and survive the situation in better physical and mental health.
Research in lab settings has found reduced emotional reactions to artificially induced stress after people exercise. For example, in a University of Maryland study, people who looked at unpleasant images 15 minutes after a half-hour workout showed lower levels of anxiety than people who looked at the images after sitting quietly for 30 minutes. From this, it’s easy to see how going for a run before starting a stressful day at work can have a similar stress-reducing effect.
Of course, runners have long intuited the value of maintaining some semblance of routine during hectic times. Doing so usually provides a short respite from your worries, gives you a focused opportunity to think through things, and helps you feel like you haven’t lost complete control of your life.
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 effects 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 of a difficult colleague – 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 a 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.