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Exercising away final exam stress

Words by Hallie Saculla

Image courtesy of Pixabay via Creative Commons.

Amidst a busy semester, students everywhere crave the light at the end of the tunnel. Before that light can be reached, final exams must be completed, and with that comes increased stress.

In a survey done by the mtvU Associated Press, 60 percent of students reported that severe stress interferes with their ability to complete their schoolwork. Of those students surveyed, 85 percent reported they feel the effects of stress daily.

“With all the testing we have demanded of students, anticipatory anxiety and stressful responses run ramped,” said Christopher Kadvan, a high school teacher and coach at Salem School District. “Physically, reactions to stress cause increased absences and produce symptoms like migraines, stomach aches and sleep disorders.”

The source of stress is perceived and appraised by the brain’s cortex. This part of the brain assesses the source of the stress, which will determine if a stress response is triggered. The cortex then sends a message to the amygdala, which is the fear center of the brain.

The amygdala’s response to activation is to stimulate the hypothalamus. Depending on the nature of the stress, the hypothalamus activates one of two stress systems: the fast-acting and the slower-acting. The fast-acting responds to acute stressors, like a difficult exam you have to take right now, and the slower-acting responds to chronic stress, like a really tough semester.

With fast-acting stressors, a neural message is sent to the adrenal medulla, which releases epinephrine and norepinephrine, the chemical messengers that prepare our body for fight or flight.

Slower-acting stressors work by stimulating the hormonal cascade through the pituitary gland, which activates release of adrenocorticotropic hormone, in turn releasing cortisol, often referred to as the stress hormone.

To combat these effects of stress on the body, Ellen Glickman, an exercise physiology professor at Kent State, describes physical activity as “meditation in motion.” As exercise increases endorphins, it improves one’s mood, sleep patterns and mental well-being.

“Correlational studies typically find that higher fitness level is linked to a lower stress response,” Spitznagel said. “Additionally, several experimental studies investigating the effects of an exercise intervention on samples of people with high stress levels show that exercise lowers perceived stress and enhances positive affect.

While it’s unknown exactly how exercise alleviates stress, there are many theories based on scientific evidence.

“One [hypotheses] that makes a lot of sense is the idea that exercise alters neurotransmission,” Spitznagel said. “In the short-term, exercise may help alleviate the experience of stress due to changes in the chemical messengers of our brain that are involved in the stress response.”

Kadvan, a high school basketball coach, feels that the court is one of the best places to dismiss some stressors associated with academic performance. He feels that “healthy, active bodies correlate directly to healthy, active minds.”

Exercise can be viewed as a positive physical stressor. Regularly experiencing that stressor and the recovery process your body needs to go through following it enhances your ability to recover from other types of stress, like a troublesome exam.

“The positive stress of regular exercise may make our bodies more resilient when we have a negative stressor, because it allows us to practice physiological recovery from stress,” Spitznagel said. “Our bodies get used to the cycle of stress and recovery over time, and we become more efficient at it.”

Glickman suggests to pencil in time reserved for physical activity. She also feels that by keeping a journal dedicated to working out, one can set goals and track progress.

“Cognitively, test scores suffer when stress interrupts learning and the ability to demonstrate knowledge,” Kadvan said. “Keeping physical activity on a student’s schedule seems to help alleviate some of the anxieties surrounding academics. Take a lighthearted approach to stress by engaging in enjoyable activity that clears the mind, refuels the spirit and organizes thinking.”

Hallie Saculla is the fitness and recreation reporter for The Burr.

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