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The antidote to chronic stress is chronic exercise

Waterloo Region Record by Jennifer Heisz and Emily Paolucci 28 April 2016

Even Olympic athletes sometimes get the blues. Clara Hughes has publicly shared her struggle with depression, bringing much needed honesty and openness to the stigma surrounding mental illness. At its peak, Clara’s depression filled her with inescapable hopelessness and isolation. Through her dark periods, Clara recounts the empowering benefits of exercise on her mental health.

When the stressors of life got really bad, Clara’s struggle with depression got that much tougher. This month is a particularly stressful period for university students as they cram for final exams and, all too often, put aside physical and mental health in the process.

Mental illness is on the rise, and students are more at-risk than most. One in three university students will experience the symptoms of depression at some point during their time at school. With expectations for high grades come high-stakes pressures for exams, leading many students to experience chronic stress and anxiety. This marks April as a particularly vulnerable period for anxiety and depression.

Exams and evaluations act as psychological stressors to release cortisol by activating a circuit connecting the brain and body called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. This is normally a good thing — in small doses, the acute increase in cortisol mobilizes energy stores within the body to help us effectively deal with the stressor. The problem arises when the stressor is unrelenting. Prolonged increases in cortisol can damage the hippocampus — a key brain region involved in learning and memory and regulation of the stress response. Ironically, the intense pressure to achieve top grades can compromise a student’s ability to effectively learn and retain the knowledge they need to perform well academically. In severe cases, damage to the hippocampus also impairs the body’s ability to recover from a stressor, creating a negative feedback loop that exacerbates feelings of hopelessness.

In most cases, these stress-induced depressive symptoms may be temporary. But for others, the effects can be long-lasting and the stigma surrounding mental health issues may prevent these students from getting the assistance they need. When severe depression is ignored, the hopelessness can turn to tragedy. The recent loss of two Western University students during the weeks leading up to final exams is a grim reminder of the devastating impact of untreated severe depression.

It’s not just students studying for exams who feel the pinch from chronic stress. As anyone with a tight schedule and competing demands can attest, psychological stressors affect everyone. The good news is that even if you are not an Olympic athlete like Clara Hughes, exercise can serve as a key preventive strategy to cope with stressors and promote good physical and mental health.

Exercise tones the stress system and increases resiliency to psychological stressors, whether they are exams, problems at work, or financial challenges. The benefits can be achieved with just 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, like brisk walking, three times a week. This may sound like a costly time investment during a hectic period when other activities demand your attention. However, prioritizing exercise can increase the quality of the time spent on these demanding activities.

Universities and colleges across Canada are catching on and finding innovative ways to help students fit exercise into their busy schedules. McMaster University recently launched the Walk in Nature Days, offering students guided nature walks. The University of Toronto opened the Mental Health and Physical Activity Research Centre to help students set healthy goals. McGill University offers an Exercise for Mood program geared toward engaging inactive students. The common thread in all these programs is that an active and healthy body leads to an active and healthy mind.

The next time you are feeling the pressure of chronic stress, take a break and go for a vigorous walk. Your future self (and work) will thank you later.

Dr. Jennifer Heisz is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Kinesiology at McMaster University and Director of the Emily Paolucci is a Masters student at McMaster University in the NeuroFitLab. Follow their research on Twitter @jenniferheisz and @PaolucciEmily.