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Medicine LibreTexts

3.19: Exercise and Stress

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  • Exercise builds stronger bodies only if we push ourselves beyond our regular level of strength and endurance. Progressing in your intellectual skills occurs only by going beyond your adaptation level for the complexity and amount of knowledge you must acquire. Stress as "challenge" enhances physical and emotional well-being. Mountain climbers want risk and challenge, but they want the type that they feel they can master and mostly control. They don't want to be perfectly in control because then the challenge would not be so great. They want to be on the edge between in-control and having to use every degree of skill, concentration, and problem solving to succeed. The same is true of race car drivers, downhiill skiers, chess players, musicians, and artists.

    These activities have been described by Csikszentmihalyi as inducing the experience of "flow" that totally captures the attention, makes it very easy to continue, and very hard to stop. There are many other activities and professions that produce "flow", but the essence of the experience is to be on the edge of challenge and failure with the perception that your own efforts will make the difference between good and bad outcomes. In these conditions stress builds healthier bodies and higher well-being. People who experience "flow" frequently report high degrees of satisfaction in life.

    Physiological Toughness Model

    There is also a psychophysiological framework for explaining how exercise cannot only reduce the immediate effects of stress but also can enhance the recovery from stressors. This framework is called the Physiological Toughness Model and it theorizes that intermittent but regular exposure to stressors, like exercise, can lead to psychological coping, emotional stability, and physiological changes. These physiological changes include increases in endorphins and reductions in stress hormones and lead to improvements in performance during challenging/threatening situations, strengthening of immune system functioning, and improvements in stress tolerance.