Though causes of stress can be plentiful, there are multiple ways to combat stressors and the negative toll they can take on the body, says an expert at the American College of Sports Medicine's (ACSM) 12th-annual Health & Fitness Summit & Exposition.

Christina Geithner, Ph.D., and an ACSM-certified health/fitness instructor, says people experience stress in different ways, depending on the severity and duration of the stressor. Stress can have a positive impact in that it can motivate as well as help maintain focus and alertness. On the down side, stress may result in feelings of being overwhelmed or out of balance, and can cause anxiety and depression.

Geithner says that stress can have numerous disruptive effects on the body - not just the mind - including fatigue, headaches, stomach upset, sleep problems, backaches, changes in appetite, increased cortisol secretion (the so-called "stress hormone"), changes in weight (loss or gain), increased resting heart rate and respiratory rate, high blood pressure, shortness of breath, muscle tension, sweaty palms, and cold hands and feet.

"Stress is a common problem in today's society, largely because increased pressure to perform on the job has created work/life imbalances," Geithner said. "Other major stressors include death of a spouse or family member, divorce, marriage, and personal injury or illness." She also cited job demands, a move or change in a work or living situation, relationship issues or arguments, financial issues, and holidays as possible causes of stress.

Many methods of stress reduction exist, including breathing, meditation, progressive relaxation, and exercise. All tend to reduce anxiety, depression, heart rate and blood pressure, and enhance a feeling of relaxation and wellbeing.

"Exercise serves as a distraction from the stressor, and results in reduced muscle tension and cortisol secretion," Geithner said. "The additional benefit of exercise is that when done alone or used in combination with other stress reduction methods, it also improves physical fitness and has the potential for more profound effects on chronic disease risk reduction than other stress reduction strategies."

As part of a stress management routine, Geithner suggests eating a healthy diet, getting adequate sleep, practicing breathing exercises, and including aerobic as well as mind/body exercise such as yoga, t'ai chi, or pilates.

"Make time for activities and people you enjoy on a regular basis, and laugh often," she said. "Try to accept that you can't control everything in your life. Make choices that support your well-being and reduce your stress, rather than add to it."

The American College of Sports Medicine is the largest sports medicine and exercise science organization in the world. More than 20,000 International, National and Regional members are dedicated to promoting and integrating scientific research, education and practical applications of sports medicine and exercise science to maintain and enhance physical performance, fitness, health and quality of life.

American College of Sports Medicine