Soon enough, students will begin emerging from hibernation and congregating in libraries and study spaces to prepare for the most painful time of the year: exam season. And while trying to cram a semester’s worth of information into a highly caffeinated and deliriously sleep-deprived brain is stress-inducing to say the least, finding the time to hit the gym might prove as effective as hitting the books.
Researchers in Germany recently tested the effects of exercise on university students’ responses to the stresses experienced during final exams. The results of their study support the idea that adapting to one form of stress is thought to induce adaptation and translate into tolerance for other forms of stress as well. This “cross-stressor adaptation hypothesis” means that the physical stress experienced by the body during a workout improves your body’s ability to respond to non-exercise stressors, like cramming for an exam, writing a paper, or even looking at your bank account, as in my case.
The stress response is measured in slight variations in the time between consecutive heartbeats, termed as a person’s “heart rate variability”. This variability gives an indication of the balance between the parasympathetic (rest and digest function) and sympathetic (fight or flight response) components of the autonomic nervous system. In stressful situations, a decrease in the parasympathetic nervous system reduces HRV, as the body is preparing to deal with the stressful situation and heighten its sympathetic responses.
The heart rhythms of students in the study that regularly engaged in 30 to 60–minute exercise regiments twice a week had higher heart variability, which was an indication of reduced stress, even during their highly stressful exam period.
The chronic stresses and pressures we experience nearing the end of the semester as assignments, labs, and tests are due raise the risk of severe heart issues and an eroding of health in the long run.
Unavoidable as it is, stress doesn’t have to mean total self-destruction, especially if you mentally and physically prepare yourself. In fact, exercise not only keeps HRV values closer to normal, but it may even be linked to boosting mood and immune function and helping keep ailments like high cholesterol and heart disease at bay.
You might be stressed from all the studying you haven’t done, like me. As counterintuitive as this may seem, there isn’t a better way to procrastinate than by exercising to prepare your body to handle the hurricane of stress that’s just around the corner.