By Saumil Majmudar
Over millennia, human beings have survived by hunting and gathering. And that required us to move. A lot.
Today, we don’t need to move, a lot, to survive. A little bit suffices.
Human bodies have evolved to move. Not sit in one place for hours.
Any system, human or otherwise, is optimal i.e. with minimum stress and survives for maximum time – when it is used for what it was originally meant for.
Sports (and here I include all forms of physical activities like fitness exercise, play and games) seems to be the only reason we move, significantly and frequently enough.
Anybody who has played sports will confirm that they feel that their stress levels have been lowered. They also feel a nice, warm glow and generally have an “all is well” sensation after a session.
Given that we have evolved to move, it makes sense that we feel great when we use our body for what it has evolved for!
But why does that happen? How does participating in sport relieve stress?
Firstly, stress per se is not bad, i.e. a certain level of stress leads to improved performance and focus for the same reasons that high or chronic stress is bad. The body diverts resources to focus on the specific task that is creating stress and hence improves performance on that front.
Our body instinctively tightens its muscles in response to stress – in a “fight or flight” response. This is a hangover from our days in the jungles where stress was only because you were about to be killed – or eaten.
In order to survive, you had to fight. Or take flight, i.e. run!
The brain has been hardwired to respond with a “fight or flight” signal. In either case, all resources of the body have to be diverted to the cardiovascular system so that the body can survive.
The limbic and prefrontal portions of our brain manage this instinctive response. They are the “older”, “animal” parts of our brain. These portions were part of the human brain before we evolved the frontal cortex that helps us plan ahead and anticipate the future. The instinctive responses over-ride any conscious thought.
The “fight or flight” signal releases stress hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol which in turn lead to an increase in heart rate, blood pressure and higher oxygen pumping through the body so that the body can fight or take flight.
Today, most stressful situations are not a matter of life or death, though some of us feel it that way.
But the body reacts the way it has evolved over millennia. Instinctively it is based on the chemicals in the brain.
During chronic stress situations, the body stays in the “fight or flight” mode relentlessly. This is why chronic stress is worse than one-off stress.
So, how does participation in sports relieve stress?
Apart from getting our heart pumping more oxygen-rich blood into our system, participation in sports gets our bodies to release hormones called endorphins – also called “happy hormones” – that creates the good feeling after sport or any form of physical activity for that matter.
Endorphins are the neurotransmitters – or chemicals in the brain – that lead to improvements in mood by changing the chemistry of the limbic and prefrontal parts of our brain. These are the same parts that lead to our “fight or flight” response.
Increase in endorphins lead to the “all is well” feeling and enhances the body’s immune system.
Through sports – or any form of physical activity – the release of mood enhancing endorphins reduces the level of stress, relaxes the muscles and reduces the stress hormones.
Sports helps you sleep better. And good quality sleep helps reduce depression and anxiety due to a reduction of the stress hormones in the body.
Playing any sport is a great way to make new friends as well as bond with your group. And when we feel comfortable with our social group, our sense of self-esteem increases. In such a situation, the brain releases oxytocin – the hormone which helps reduce anxiety and create a feeling of relaxation.
Finally, it doesn’t really matter how participating in sports relieves stress. The fact is that it does.
So, go ahead and play!
About: Saumil Majmudar is the MD and Co-founder, EduSports, which is India’s largest school sports company.