It's no secret that dancers are big fans of core strengthening: a strong core means steadier balances, correctly supported extensions and safe, controlled landings from jumps. But according to a study recently published by a group of scientists at the University of Pittsburgh, core strength might have another benefit: stress relief.
The study examined the multisynaptic connections in primates between the cerebral cortex and the adrenal medulla—essentially the multiple pathways between your brain and your body that connect mental stress with your physical response to it. The adrenal medulla is responsible for pumping adrenaline into the bloodstream and regulating blood pressure in response to neural stimuli (stressors) that predict the necessity of sudden action. Translation: when you're stressed, your brain sends signals to the adrenal medulla, which then prepares your body's fight or flight response—an adrenaline rush.
While it's long been accepted that there is "top-down" control (brain to body) over the body's adrenaline response, this study discovered that the motor network (the connections between your body and the part of your brain that anticipates and controls movement) was the major source of influence, with the strongest originating from the core. Among several other implications, the authors note, "These observations suggest that there is a link between the descending control of “core muscles” and the regulation of sympathetic output. This link could provide a neural substrate for the control of stress through “core” exercises, such as yoga and pilates." Commenting on the study, Peter Strick, one of the authors, speculated that this could help to explain why posture has a noticeable impact on confidence and stress (and vice versa). If you understand how to control your core, you may be better able to modulate your level of stress before it becomes overwhelming and counterproductive. This means some of our favorite cross-training exercises help not only with technique, but with combatting stress.
So the next time you're feeling frazzled, take a few minutes to do a few Pilates "teasers" or flow through some challenging yoga asanas. Your stress levels—and your core body—will thank you.