Stop worrying about not getting enough exercise and being too stressed – you may live longer

January 5, 2018 by Robin Bailey, The Conversation
All in the mind? Credit: pathdoc/Shutterstock.com

It's January, so it's likely that you have set yourself goals to be more physically active and less stressed in 2018. Paradoxically, better goals would be to stop worrying about how much exercise you're getting and to stop worrying about being too stressed.

A recent study of over 60,000 US adults examined the link between perceptions of exercise and mortality. The researchers found something curious: people who worried about being less active than others were up to 71% more likely to die in follow up period 21 years later, regardless of their actual levels of or overall .

Inversely, believing you are getting enough exercise can lead to better health. In a study conducted by Harvard University, a group of hotel workers was told that their daily work fulfilled recommended exercise guidelines. A second group – the control group – was not given this information. After just one month, people in the informed group showed significant health improvements, including a ten point drop in and two pound weight loss (0.9kg). Waist-to-hip ratio also improved, as did . All of these changes were significantly greater than the changes in the .

Meta-stress

It is a commonly held belief that is bad for you, but the evidence is not clear cut. For example, a 2016 UK study of over 700,000 women, found that self-reported levels of stress had no direct effect on mortality.

Similar to what has been found with activity levels, how you perceive or think about stress may be as big a problem as stress itself. A number of studies seem to support this idea.

In a large study, spanning nine years, researchers explored the role of stress and its impact on health and mortality. In this study, the researchers not only explored people's levels of stress, but also their beliefs about stress being dangerous for their health.

The results showed that neither high amounts of stress nor the perception that stress has a negative effect on health were independently associated with premature death. However, people who both believed that stress affects health and reported a large amount of stress had a 43% increased risk of premature death. The authors concluded: "The results suggest that the appraisal of both the amount of stress and its impact on health may work together synergistically to increase the risk of ."

Interestingly, those who reported high levels of stress but who did not believe their stress was harmful, had the lowest mortality rates, even compared with those who had less stress.

New year, new mindset

What links both these areas of research is the idea that your mindset may be very important in influencing both the positive and negative effects of stress and exercise. So how can you change your mindset?

A starting point with exercise is to give up worrying how much physical activity you are doing compared with others. This is particularly important if your comparisons are based on unrealistically high standards, such as those often portrayed on social media.

Follow public health guidelines on appropriate levels of physical activity, but remember to praise yourself for the exercise and activity you do do, and don't punish yourself for the you don't do. This may increase your motivation and provide a range of physical health benefits – as with the hotel workers.

With regards to stress, you need to stop thinking of as being directly dangerous, particularly if you are stressed, as it is the relationship between stress and its perceived effect on health that increases mortality. When people worry about stress being dangerous, it can lead to a range of behaviours that can be much more dangerous, such as smoking, binge eating and excessive alcohol consumption.

Two approaches may be helpful here: first, don't worry about stress being bad for you. Worry only heightens a sense of threat and strengthens the belief that stress is dangerous. By choosing not to worry, you can greatly reduce any stress you may have about stress. This may also reduce your desire to engage in unhealthy lifestyle choices.

Second, accept stress as a normal part of life and a natural survival mechanism for dealing with threats. It has been shown that when people shift to seeing stress as enhancing rather than debilitating, it can result in more positive outcomes.

A change in perception and a reduction in worry may be a beneficial goal we can all achieve.

Explore further: Less than half of Canadians exercise to relieve stress

Related Stories

Less than half of Canadians exercise to relieve stress

October 6, 2014
A research study out of McMaster University has found that only 40 per cent of Canadians exercise to cope with stress.

Study assesses how we perceive other people's stress levels in the workplace

November 13, 2017
A new Tel Aviv University study finds that people often project their own experiences with stress onto their colleagues and employees, causing miscommunication and, often, missed opportunities.

Group exercise improves quality of life, reduces stress far more than individual work outs

October 30, 2017
Researchers found working out in a group lowers stress by 26 percent and significantly improves quality of life, while those who exercise individually put in more effort but experienced no significant changes in their stress ...

Mindfulness-based therapy may reduce stress in overweight and obese individuals

July 7, 2017
In a randomized clinical trial of women who were overweight or obese, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) increased mindfulness and decreased stress compared with health education. In addition, fasting blood sugar levels ...

Being fit protects against health risks caused by stress at work

November 1, 2016
It is a well-known fact that fitness and well-being go hand in hand. But being in good shape also protects against the health problems that arise when we feel particularly stressed at work. As reported by sports scientists ...

Employees of medical centers report high stress and negative health behaviors

September 8, 2016
Several national surveys have found that approximately 15 to 20 percent of adults in the U.S. will report high levels of stress. A new study by Mayo Clinic researchers identified stress and burnout as a major problem employees ...

Recommended for you

New approaches in neuroscience show it's not all in your head

February 16, 2018
Our own unique experiences shape how we view the world and respond to the events in our lives. But experience is highly subjective. What's distressing or joyful to one person may be very different to another.

Link between hallucinations and dopamine not such a mystery, finds study

February 16, 2018
Researchers at Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC) and New York State Psychiatric Institute (NYSPI) found that people with schizophrenia who experience auditory hallucinations tend to hear what they expect, ...

People find comfort listening to the same songs over and over, study finds

February 16, 2018
With the frequency that some people play their favorite song, it's a good thing vinyl records aren't used often because they might wear out.

Ketamine found to reduce bursting in brain area reducing depression quickly

February 15, 2018
A team of researchers at Zhejiang University in China has found that the drug ketamine reduces neuronal bursting in the lateral habenula (LHb) brain region, reducing symptoms of depression in rodent models. In their paper ...

What predicts the quality of children's friendships? Study shows cognition, emotion together play

February 15, 2018
Whether children think their peers' intentions are benign or hostile, and how those children experience and express their own emotions, may influence the quality of their friendships, according to a new study from the University ...

Evidence shows pets can help people with mental health problems

February 15, 2018
The study of 17 research papers by academics at the Universities of Manchester, Southampton and Liverpool, concludes that pets can help people manage their long-term mental health conditions.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Gregor985
not rated yet Jan 05, 2018
Perhaps this effect is due to the following: people who don't worry about their stress levels also know that they have high tolerance for stress. People with low tolerance for stress generally know it, because they have to avoid it more. When normal life pushes the latter people into stress territory, they feel it taking a toll on them.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.