The Cooper Institute

Founded in 1970 by the "Father of Aerobics"
Kenneth H. Cooper MD, MPH


Holiday Cheer Minus the Stress

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Monday, Dec 14, 2009


Can you believe it? Only 10 shopping days left until Christmas!  The holidays can be a wonderful and joyous time but for many, with this season comes some unwanted guests—no, not the in-laws—anxiety and stress. All of the shopping, decorating, card writing, baking, entertaining, partying, and our desire to make this the BEST Christmas ever can often be quite overwhelming. And this challenging economic time is definitely not helping. As a matter of fact, the American Psychological Association (APA) just released their 2009 National Stress in America Survey1 that found that at the time of the survey, 75 percent of adults reported experiencing moderate to high levels of stress in the past month and nearly half reported that their stress had increased in the past year.

The stress response, often called the “fight or flight” response, causes a number of neural and hormonal events to occur that at one time helped us deal with a “physical” threat. Most of us do not encounter physical threats any longer but our minds are so powerful that we can set off this response in reaction to other stressors in our lives.  This, unfortunately, can impact both our mental and physical health. Headaches, upset stomach, lack of energy, and fatigue are just a few such examples. The good news is that research has proven time and time again that physical activity can help manage and ward off the harmful effects of stress.

Most of us would agree that exercising makes us “feel better” but we may not necessarily know why. In the book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain author Dr. John J. Ratey explores the many ways exercise is good for our brain beyond the “runner’s high” that occurs from endorphin release. (Endorphins are chemicals produced by the body that act as our “natural pain killers” and produce a feeling of well-being.) Exercise can be the physical response to those chemical events that are brought on by the urge to “fight or take flight” decreasing the danger of those chemical events. Exercise also increases levels of serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine which are chemicals that are important for brain function.  Stress has been shown to break down the connections between the nerve cells in the brain and even makes some parts of the brain smaller. The chemicals and growth factors that are released as a result of exercise have been shown to reverse this process. Just like muscle “grows” in response to exercise, so too does the brain. Some studies have shown exercise to be just as effective if not better at treating depression than medication. And there is even more!

Despite this, however, according to the APA survey, only 44 percent of adults report that they exercise or walk to relieve stress. So during the stress of the holidays here are some tips to ward off stress while gaining the many benefits exercise has to offer. Remember even if you are not able to do your normal exercise routine, some is better than none. And pick up Dr. Ratey’s book as a stocking stuffer for you or someone you love. Hopefully that will allow you to check something off your list and may even help decrease your stress!

  •   Take a walk to see the holiday decorations in your neighborhood
  •   Round up the family to take a walk after your holiday meal
  •   Park your car farther away when shopping—it beats fighting for parking spaces
  •   Play a game of flag football with the family
  •   Start a “friendly” snowball fight
  •   Visit a Christmas tree farm and cut down your own Christmas tree
  •   Build a snowman
  •   Walk around the house while making your holiday calls

Check out Happy Days are Here Again for more information on exercise and stress.

Happy Holidays!

1 American Psychological Association. (2009, November 3). 2009 Stress in America. Retrieved on   December 10, 2009 from the APA Help Center:

2 Ratey, J.J. (2008). Spark: the revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.