Article
Podcast Episode
December 6, 2023

From Stress to Strength: Amplifying Adaptive Capacity Through Exercise

Key Takeaways:

  • Exercise and Stress Buffering: The 'stress-buffer hypothesis' and the 'cross-stressor-adaptation hypothesis' (CSA) are key concepts discussed in the article. These theories suggest that regular exercise can reduce the negative physical and emotional effects of chronic stress and also promote a beneficial adaptation of the body's stress response systems. Essentially, exercise can make us more resilient against stressors.
  • Fitness and Resilience: Improved fitness leads to better stress resilience and physiological toughness. Regular exercise can enhance the neuroendocrine response to stress, reduce stress reactivity, increase stress tolerance, and improve mood and cognitive function. The article suggests that exercise is a form of physiological toughening that helps us remain calm under pressure.
  • Exercise and Brain Health: Regular physical exercise not only increases the body's capacity to adapt and recover from stress but also enhances brain plasticity, which aids in stress coping. It alters the structure of the brain, increasing the number of neurons and the connections between them. This way, exercise contributes to the growth of your adaptive capacity, making you more resilient against stress and reducing your risk for chronic stress-related diseases.
Contents
For further analysis, we broke down the data by wearable device:
Contents
For further analysis, we broke down the data by wearable device:
Cite this page:

Introduction

In a previous post, we defined a concept known as adaptive capacity, which refers to your ability to engage with and adapt to stress. Stress, remember, can refer to things we encounter in everyday life — personal and work relationships, finances, the news, or loneliness — that challenge the body’s set point, or homeostasis.

Stress isn’t something we want to avoid, but rather something we should embrace. Stress is the gateway to growth, and learning to adapt to it is how we get stronger.

We can become better at adapting to stress by building our adaptive capacity — by increasing the size of our gas tank, so to speak. Remember that daily stress depletes our gas tank, so having a larger one allows us to engage with more stress throughout the day. While adaptive capacity represents the overall size of your tank, adaptive fuel represents how much gas is in the tank at the start of each day — your currency for adaptation.

Adaptive capacity is crucial for your overall well-being. With a larger adaptive capacity, you can respond better to life’s stress and experience continued growth. At AIM7, our goal is to help you enhance your adaptive capacity using the 5 pillars of Adaptive Capacity.

Today, we tackle pillar number one: exercise.

The science behind exercise and adaptive capacity

There’s no doubt about it: exercise might be the most important thing you can do for your physical, psychological, and emotional health. The benefits of exercise in preventing cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and metabolic syndrome are profound. Exercise has even been linked to a lower risk for neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

Regular exercise can also improve sleep quality, provide us with a distraction from the day-to-day stress of life, and improve self-esteem. Because a lot of exercise is performed in social settings, it can also be a great way to build friendships and a sense of community.

Exercise is also a fundamental pillar of building adaptive capacity, and one of your keys to growth.

Exercise, stress buffering, and the cross-stressor hypothesis

One of the most well-known reasons why exercise boosts our stress resilience is known as the “stress–buffer hypothesis.” Put simply, physical exercise modulates the relationship between stress and health by reducing the detrimental effects of chronic stress on our health. The negative physical and emotional effects of stress (e.g., work stress) are buffered by regular exercise.

The evidence supports this. Physically fit people are less susceptible to illness, disease, and stress-related disorders like anxiety. They also suffer less from obesity, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes — conditions for which chronic stress is known to play a major role. 

Another explanation for the effects of exercise on stress is known as the cross-stressor-adaptation hypothesis, or CSA. 

The CSA proposes that exercise activates a stress response that’s similar to the one you experience during exposure to a psychological stressor. Indeed, acute exercise — particularly vigorous or high-intensity exercise — initiates the “fight or flight” response. This response involves an activation of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis, the sympathoadrenal medullary (SAM) system, and the immune system. As a result, glucocorticoids and catecholamines are released, heart rate and blood pressure increase, and immune cells are activated.

The effect of exercise on HPA axis function

This response occurs in a dose- and intensity-dependent manner. Low-intensity exercise results in minimal activation, while vigorous exercise causes a marked increase in all three systems. This is why while high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is incredibly beneficial, we have to be careful not to overdo it.

According to the CSA, regular exercise causes a beneficial adaptation of the HPA, SAM, and immune systems, adaptations which generalize to other non-physical (i.e., cognitive, emotional, or psychological) stressors. Repeated exercise with enough recovery time “toughens” the body against subsequent stress. The minor altercation with a work colleague becomes insignificant, and the psychological toll of a major financial setback or traumatic event is greatly reduced.

In other words, by increasing your adaptive capacity, exercise allows you to engage with more stress and be more resilient against your stress encounters. Each stressful event draws less fuel from your gas tank, a fuel tank that is larger to begin with.

Fitness and resilience

Now let’s talk about the effects of physical fitness on health and resilience. Having a high level of fitness can optimize your neuroendocrine and physiological response to all types of stress, whether they be physical or psychological.

Improvements in fitness directly reduce stress reactivity. Improving aerobic fitness has been shown to increase tolerance to intense workloads, characterized by a reduced cortisol and heart rate response to stress, a better mood, and a greater sense of calmness during and after stress.

Exercise also boosts stress resilience through a process of “physiological toughening.” Physiological toughness to stress means that your initial response to stress exposure is increased and you recover more quickly. Furthermore, improved stress tolerance means you’ll perform better during challenging and stressful situations because you’re less likely to “freeze” or become overwhelmed — you’re “calm under pressure.”

The mechanisms behind the effects of physical fitness on physiological and psychological toughness have been widely studied and involve a better mood, lower rates of depression and anxiety, and improved cognitive function.

Furthermore, as your body gets fit, so does your brain. Exercise literally changes the structure of your brain, increasing the number of neurons and the connections between those neurons. A fit brain is a plastic brain, and a plastic brain is better at coping with stress.

The above effects are the essence of how exercise builds adaptive capacity. When you consistently engage in exercise — whether it be resistance exercise, aerobic exercise, or team sports — you are increasing your body’s ability to adapt and recover from stress.

Improving your adaptive capacity — your fuel tank — through exercise means that each day, you can start with more adaptive fuel and greater resilience against stress. Not only will this allow you to perform better in every aspect of life, but it will also reduce your risk for chronic stress-related diseases.

By now, you’re probably itching to go for a run or hit the gym. Improving your physical fitness is one of the best things you can do to increase your resilience and long-term health, and it’s also one of the key pillars for improving your adaptive capacity, which ultimately, is essential for your continued growth.

If you’re wondering where to start, we’ve got you covered. Any activity that gets your heart rate up and your blood pumping can stimulate beneficial adaptations. This could mean biking, running, using the elliptical, or engaging in high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Those activities will cover your aerobic exercise base, and you should aim to achieve between 150 and 300 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise.

For body-strengthening workouts, you can engage in resistance training with machines, free weights, bands, or even your own body weight, depending on your current level of fitness. Aim to knock out 2-3 sessions of resistance exercise each week.

Want more personalized recommendations? Check out the AIM7 app where we will provide you with science-backed exercise strategies to help build your adaptive capacity.

Stay tuned, because in future posts, we’re going to discuss the remaining 4 Pillars of Adaptive Capacity and why they’re important for your health and resilience.

Contents
For further analysis, we broke down the data:
Cite this page:

Contents
For further analysis, we broke down the data by wearable device:
Key TAKEAWAYS
  • Exercise and Stress Buffering: The 'stress-buffer hypothesis' and the 'cross-stressor-adaptation hypothesis' (CSA) are key concepts discussed in the article. These theories suggest that regular exercise can reduce the negative physical and emotional effects of chronic stress and also promote a beneficial adaptation of the body's stress response systems. Essentially, exercise can make us more resilient against stressors.
  • Fitness and Resilience: Improved fitness leads to better stress resilience and physiological toughness. Regular exercise can enhance the neuroendocrine response to stress, reduce stress reactivity, increase stress tolerance, and improve mood and cognitive function. The article suggests that exercise is a form of physiological toughening that helps us remain calm under pressure.
  • Exercise and Brain Health: Regular physical exercise not only increases the body's capacity to adapt and recover from stress but also enhances brain plasticity, which aids in stress coping. It alters the structure of the brain, increasing the number of neurons and the connections between them. This way, exercise contributes to the growth of your adaptive capacity, making you more resilient against stress and reducing your risk for chronic stress-related diseases.
Contents
For further analysis, we broke down the data by wearable device:

Introduction

In a previous post, we defined a concept known as adaptive capacity, which refers to your ability to engage with and adapt to stress. Stress, remember, can refer to things we encounter in everyday life — personal and work relationships, finances, the news, or loneliness — that challenge the body’s set point, or homeostasis.

Stress isn’t something we want to avoid, but rather something we should embrace. Stress is the gateway to growth, and learning to adapt to it is how we get stronger.

We can become better at adapting to stress by building our adaptive capacity — by increasing the size of our gas tank, so to speak. Remember that daily stress depletes our gas tank, so having a larger one allows us to engage with more stress throughout the day. While adaptive capacity represents the overall size of your tank, adaptive fuel represents how much gas is in the tank at the start of each day — your currency for adaptation.

Adaptive capacity is crucial for your overall well-being. With a larger adaptive capacity, you can respond better to life’s stress and experience continued growth. At AIM7, our goal is to help you enhance your adaptive capacity using the 5 pillars of Adaptive Capacity.

Today, we tackle pillar number one: exercise.

The science behind exercise and adaptive capacity

There’s no doubt about it: exercise might be the most important thing you can do for your physical, psychological, and emotional health. The benefits of exercise in preventing cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and metabolic syndrome are profound. Exercise has even been linked to a lower risk for neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

Regular exercise can also improve sleep quality, provide us with a distraction from the day-to-day stress of life, and improve self-esteem. Because a lot of exercise is performed in social settings, it can also be a great way to build friendships and a sense of community.

Exercise is also a fundamental pillar of building adaptive capacity, and one of your keys to growth.

Exercise, stress buffering, and the cross-stressor hypothesis

One of the most well-known reasons why exercise boosts our stress resilience is known as the “stress–buffer hypothesis.” Put simply, physical exercise modulates the relationship between stress and health by reducing the detrimental effects of chronic stress on our health. The negative physical and emotional effects of stress (e.g., work stress) are buffered by regular exercise.

The evidence supports this. Physically fit people are less susceptible to illness, disease, and stress-related disorders like anxiety. They also suffer less from obesity, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes — conditions for which chronic stress is known to play a major role. 

Another explanation for the effects of exercise on stress is known as the cross-stressor-adaptation hypothesis, or CSA. 

The CSA proposes that exercise activates a stress response that’s similar to the one you experience during exposure to a psychological stressor. Indeed, acute exercise — particularly vigorous or high-intensity exercise — initiates the “fight or flight” response. This response involves an activation of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis, the sympathoadrenal medullary (SAM) system, and the immune system. As a result, glucocorticoids and catecholamines are released, heart rate and blood pressure increase, and immune cells are activated.

The effect of exercise on HPA axis function

This response occurs in a dose- and intensity-dependent manner. Low-intensity exercise results in minimal activation, while vigorous exercise causes a marked increase in all three systems. This is why while high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is incredibly beneficial, we have to be careful not to overdo it.

According to the CSA, regular exercise causes a beneficial adaptation of the HPA, SAM, and immune systems, adaptations which generalize to other non-physical (i.e., cognitive, emotional, or psychological) stressors. Repeated exercise with enough recovery time “toughens” the body against subsequent stress. The minor altercation with a work colleague becomes insignificant, and the psychological toll of a major financial setback or traumatic event is greatly reduced.

In other words, by increasing your adaptive capacity, exercise allows you to engage with more stress and be more resilient against your stress encounters. Each stressful event draws less fuel from your gas tank, a fuel tank that is larger to begin with.

Fitness and resilience

Now let’s talk about the effects of physical fitness on health and resilience. Having a high level of fitness can optimize your neuroendocrine and physiological response to all types of stress, whether they be physical or psychological.

Improvements in fitness directly reduce stress reactivity. Improving aerobic fitness has been shown to increase tolerance to intense workloads, characterized by a reduced cortisol and heart rate response to stress, a better mood, and a greater sense of calmness during and after stress.

Exercise also boosts stress resilience through a process of “physiological toughening.” Physiological toughness to stress means that your initial response to stress exposure is increased and you recover more quickly. Furthermore, improved stress tolerance means you’ll perform better during challenging and stressful situations because you’re less likely to “freeze” or become overwhelmed — you’re “calm under pressure.”

The mechanisms behind the effects of physical fitness on physiological and psychological toughness have been widely studied and involve a better mood, lower rates of depression and anxiety, and improved cognitive function.

Furthermore, as your body gets fit, so does your brain. Exercise literally changes the structure of your brain, increasing the number of neurons and the connections between those neurons. A fit brain is a plastic brain, and a plastic brain is better at coping with stress.

The above effects are the essence of how exercise builds adaptive capacity. When you consistently engage in exercise — whether it be resistance exercise, aerobic exercise, or team sports — you are increasing your body’s ability to adapt and recover from stress.

Improving your adaptive capacity — your fuel tank — through exercise means that each day, you can start with more adaptive fuel and greater resilience against stress. Not only will this allow you to perform better in every aspect of life, but it will also reduce your risk for chronic stress-related diseases.

By now, you’re probably itching to go for a run or hit the gym. Improving your physical fitness is one of the best things you can do to increase your resilience and long-term health, and it’s also one of the key pillars for improving your adaptive capacity, which ultimately, is essential for your continued growth.

If you’re wondering where to start, we’ve got you covered. Any activity that gets your heart rate up and your blood pumping can stimulate beneficial adaptations. This could mean biking, running, using the elliptical, or engaging in high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Those activities will cover your aerobic exercise base, and you should aim to achieve between 150 and 300 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise.

For body-strengthening workouts, you can engage in resistance training with machines, free weights, bands, or even your own body weight, depending on your current level of fitness. Aim to knock out 2-3 sessions of resistance exercise each week.

Want more personalized recommendations? Check out the AIM7 app where we will provide you with science-backed exercise strategies to help build your adaptive capacity.

Stay tuned, because in future posts, we’re going to discuss the remaining 4 Pillars of Adaptive Capacity and why they’re important for your health and resilience.

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