Public Release:  Feel stressed and pressed? Then take a hike

Texas A&M University

COLLEGE STATION, October 16 - Couch potatoes, listen up.

Feel like you are overworked, uptight and stressed out?

Take a hike.

Better yet, go rock climbing, backpacking or canoeing.

Researchers at Texas A&M University conducted a detailed study of challenging outdoor activities and how they can often reduce stress and improve self-confidence and create a positive mental outlook.

Camille Bunting and Homer Tolson, researchers in health and kinesiology, along with colleagues at Duke University, tested groups of volunteers performing various outdoor tasks. Some of the participants were in good physical shape, while others were classified as "low-fit."

Their results, published in the Journal of Leisure Research: Those who were in good condition could not only handle the rigorous physical demands placed on them, but were also better equipped to tackle the mental and emotional stress associated with such activities.

"The bottom line is this: If you are in good physical condition, you can probably overcome challenging activities because you will have less anxiety and stress than someone who is not in good shape," says Bunting.

The researchers tested volunteers - ages 20 to 49 - before they engaged in such activities as rope courses, backpacking with 40- to 50-pound packs, off-trail hiking, white water canoeing and rock climbing. They again tested them once various activities had been completed.

Urine tests confirm that epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol - hormones associated with human stress - were much higher in persons who were not in good physical condition.

Those who were classified as "low-fit" had the greatest difficulty of overcoming the stress associated with the most challenging activities, which were white water canoeing and rock climbing, Bunting said.

Those individuals who were not in good shape responded with much higher levels of epinephrine, a hormone related to psychological stress, and norepinephrine, a hormone associated with physical stress.

Cortisol, a hormone usually found when a threat exists with physical or emotional tasks, was also found to be higher in low-fit persons.

"Stress confronts us on two levels - an emotional level and a physical level," Bunting explained.

"The study shows that people who are in good physical condition can handle unexpected challenges better than those who are low-fit," she adds.

"Being able to adjust to new situations - especially those that pose a risk of some sort - can be an important way to gauge stress levels. The test results show us that the high-fit person can handle such stress much better."

Those individuals who were classified as low-fit had higher levels of stress hormones present, which can be harmful if chronically high.

"The lesson appears to be that the better shape you are in, the better your body is able to handle stress," Bunting adds. "But a lesson might also be that fitness training through a variety of activities is not only better for the muscular system, but also for our stress response system."

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