The itself against a perceived threat. But when stressors

The body has a natural
stress response to defend itself against a perceived threat. But when stressors
become daily and the body constantly feel under attack, that defense mechanism
stays turned on. As a result, overexposure to that natural stress response can
have detrimental effects on the body. Cortisol, a major chemical involved in the
bodies stress response, can alter our immune system and put our bodies physical
health at risk. Physical activity and exercise are potential ways of reducing
some of the negative symptoms that stress creates. They do this by producing endorphins
which reduce stress chemicals such as cortisol. Stress not only affects the
body, but also the mind. Cortisol is a glucocorticoid and one of the central
areas that contain glucocorticoid receptors is the hippocampus. The hippocampus
is highly involved in memory consolidation and recall. We believe there to be a
negative correlation between stress and physical activity as well as a negative
correlation between stress and recall. We examined both relationships using a
linear regression analysis. Results, however were non-significant for both
hypothesis. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An
Examination of the Relationship Between Stress, Physical Activity, and Recall

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Stress
is our body’s natural response to defend itself against potential danger. When
faced with a perceived threat, our brain triggers certain glands in the body
that release hormones, such as cortisol. These hormones help prepare us by
activating the appropriate defense mechanism. There is, however, a limit to the
amount of stress an individual can experience before it starts becoming
detrimental. Psychological stress arises when an individual is no longer
able to cope with the exceedingly exigent demands of a situation (Paterson
& Neufeld, 1987). This overexposure can result in behavioral, emotional,
and cognitive disturbances that might put a person at risk, especially for
illness (Rueggeberg, Wrosch, & Miller, 2012). Current research has focused
on the interaction between physical activity and stress, given that physical
activity has the potential to increase social support, generate pleasure,
and even decrease the stress response (Tsatsoulis &
Fountoulakis, 2006). Regular exercise can increase social support by
building self-confidence and improving self-image. It can generate pleasure by
producing endorphins, chemicals in the brain that reduce our perception of fear
and pain. In addition, physical activity can regulate our sleep cycle, which is
often disrupted by stress. These benefits can then decrease the bodies overall stress
levels. In support, Haskell et al. (2007) discovered that
exercise has the ability to help metabolize stress hormones, allowing the body
to return to homeostasis and, in turn, deactivating the stress response. Evidence
also indicates that exercise and physical activity can effectively preserve
brain health and prevent further cognitive decline, even protecting against
diseases that results in the progressive loss of nerve cells and of neurologic
function (Cassilhas, Tufik, & de Mello, 2015).

Stress
not only affects the body, but also the mind. Given the complexity of stress
and its effect on the mind, limited research has been done. As a result of the
limited research, there are some studies suggesting that high levels of stress
facilitate memory (Alexander et al., 2002) and others suggesting that high levels
of stress inhibit memory (Smeets, Jelicic, and Geraerts 2006). Despite not
knowing exactly how stress affects memory, researchers are aware of the
structures involved. Stressful events activate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal
axis, which results in the release of glucocorticoids, such as cortisol.
Glucocorticoids aid organisms by helping them respond to the stressor. They
accomplish this by elevating glucose levels and binding to key receptors throughout
the brain. One of the central areas that contain glucocorticoid receptors is
the hippocampus. This area is highly involved in the consolidation of
new memories (Roozendaal, 2000). The
process of consolidation leads to a greater stability of the memory and an improved
confidence in retrieval abilities. Retrieval, or recall, refers to the
process of intentionally retrieving specific information that has already been
stored (Craik & Lockhart, 1972). Thus, if an individual experiences enough stress
to impair their hippocampus, their memory would be affected and, in turn, the recall
process as well.

Due
to the contrasting results in previous studies, the current study would like to
further investigate the relationship between physical activity, stress, and
memory recall. Stress emaciates the brain, especially the hippocampus, the
brain structure primarily responsible for memory. In contrast, physical
activity promotes production of neurotransmitters that are associated with
enhanced cognitive function (Stults-Kolehmainen & Sinha, 2014).
Physical activity has been shown to improve physical health which could
moderate stress levels and, indirectly, improve recall. Thus, the first
hypothesis predicted that physical activity would be negatively correlated
with stress. For the second hypothesis, it was predicted that stress would be
would be negatively correlated with recall.

Methods

Participants

            A total of 49 participants were recruited from the
student population at Northern Illinois University, located in DeKalb,
Illinois. Specifically, those enrolled in introductory psychology courses were
offered partial course credit should they choose to participate. The students’
ages ranged from 18 to 26 (M = 19.14,
SD = 1.71). Out of the 49
participants, 63% self-reported their gender to be female. Overall, 18% of the
participants were self-reported as Black or African American, 18% Hispanic or
Latino, 51% White, 8% Asian, and 4% as other.

Design

            This was a linear regression analysis comparing potential
correlations between stress, physical activity, recall, and working memory. Results
less than .05 were found to be statistically significant.

Materials

            Participants completed multiple surveys as part of the
memory study. There were a total of five measures. The first survey was the
Social Readjustment Measure, used to measure stress. The measure contained a
list of stressors that the participant may have experienced in the past year
(ex: Loss of job by parent). The second measure was an Activity Measure, used
to measure physical activity levels (ex: During the last 7 days, on how many
days did you bicycle or walk for at least 10 minutes at a time to go from place
to place?). The third measure involved a task known as the Digital Span Task.
This measure was used to measure working memory. The fourth measure involved a
memory recall task in which participants were instructed to listen to four
short stories and then recall as much as they could remember about each story.
Each story lasted about fifteen minutes. The fifth measure was a demographic
survey.

Procedure

This
study was approved by the Institutional review board at Northern Illinois
University. Informed consent was obtained. During the process, none of the
participants were informed of the objective. Participants were given as much
time as they needed to complete each survey, but they could only work on one at
a time. After completing a survey, participants were asked to open the door so
that the researcher could give them the following survey. During the Digital
Span Task, the researcher remained in the room. The researcher read a list of
numbers out loud and the participant was asked to repeat them back to the best
of their ability. This continued until the participant was unable to repeat the
numbers back in the correct order. Every participant received the same list of
numbers. During the Memory Recall Task, the researcher began by turning on a
computer monitor and providing the participant with a pair of headphones. The
research started the first video, but informed the participant that they would
have to click the following three videos on their own. Once the participant was
done with all five measures, they were provided with an informational sheet
that further explained the study.

Results

A
linear regression analysis between physical activity and stress levels did not
show a significant correlation, F(1,47)
= 0.088, p > .05; Figure 1. A linear regression analysis stress
and memory recall did not show a significant correlation, F(1,47) = 0.64,
p > .05; Figure 2.

Discussion

            The current study investigated
the relationship between physical activity, stress, and recall, hypothesizing that
physical activity would be negatively correlated with stress and that
stress would be would be negatively correlated with recall.

Hypothesis one was not supported; results
were non-significant. In contrast to our hypothesis, physical activity did not
predict stress levels. Similarly, a study by Mead et al. (2007) has shown
that physical activity does not always explain large differences
in physical health outcomes. This lack of association could be due to
the possibility that physical activity is not equally adaptive
among diverse groups of individuals. This suggests that the impact of stress is
influenced not only by individual differences involving exposure to stress, but
also by individual differences in response to those stressful experiences. For
example, physical activity may only exert its adaptive effects on the
physical health of individuals who are vulnerable to developing a disease by
diminishing some of the underlying risk factors and reducing their chances of
becoming ill (Mead et al., 2007). By contrast, the health effects
of physical activities may be less pronounced among individuals who
are at a lower risk of developing physical disease. For these
individuals, the effects of physical activity on physical health and stress
would not be large enough to be significant.

Hypothesis two was not supported; results
were non-significant. In contrast to our hypothesis, stress levels did not
predict recall. Research has predominantly focused on the idea that stress is
bad, but that may not always be the case. Before deciding whether or not stress
is inherently bad, it is important to look at the different types of stress.
Acute stress, the most common form of stress, comes from life’s daily demands.
Acute stress is short term and, as a result, may not have enough time to do
extensive damage (Hawkley, Bernston, Engeland, Marucha, & Masi 2005).
Chronic stress, on the other hand, is long term and is more likely to diminish
physical health and impair memory. It is the stress of unrelenting demands and
persistent pressures for extended periods of time (Hawkley,
Bernston, Engeland, Marucha, & Masi 2005). The current study
hypothesized that stress levels would predict recall with the belief that high
levels of stress could impair various memory functions. It is possible that
participants of the current study experienced more acute stress compared to
chronic stress, reducing the potential for memory impairment.

The timing of the stress could have affected
the results as well. A recent study by Cahill and Alkire (2003) assessed the
relationship between stress and time by testing the memory of participants
before, during, and after experiencing arousing, or stressful, stimuli. The
researchers produced stress by either administering epinephrine or recreating
negatively arousing stimulation (i.e. arm immersion in water). Stress induced
before and after learning resulted in enhanced recall whereas stress
experienced during learning impaired recall. Thus, the type of stress and the
time that stressor occurred could have affected the current studies results.

Unfortunately, the current study did not
clear up the inconsistencies of past research. More research will be needed to
reconcile these differences. Should our study be replicated in the future, we should
measure stress reactivity, controlling for its capacity to cause individual
differences in response to stress. It would also be beneficial to examine the
different types of stress, acute and chronic, rather than stress as a whole,
and incorporate additional influential variables.