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The Burden of Stress in America

A landmark new study examining the burden of stress on the lives of Americans is making headlines and pushing the importance of physical activity even more into the media spotlight. The NPR/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/Harvard School of Public Health “Burden of Stress in America Survey” was conducted from March 5 to April 8, 2014 and surveyed approximately 2,500 respondents. The report “examines the role stress plays in different aspects of Americans’ lives, including the public’s personal experiences of stress in the past month and year, the perceived effects of their stress and causes of that stress, their methods of stress management and their general attitudes about effects of stress in people’s lives.”

The findings reveal that 49% of people surveyed said that they had experienced a significant stressful event in the past year. These participants were then asked to describe their most stressful experience or event. The survey demonstrated that 43% of the people stated stressful events or experiences related to health, including 27% who mentioned illness and disease and 16% who said they had experienced the death of a loved one. Others reported stress experiences related to work (13%); life changes (9%); family events or situations (9%); or problems with personal relationships (6%).

It is no surprise that health-related problems were the most frequent cause of stress. People who are undergoing stress usually increase their food intake and reduce their regular sleeping and exercising habits. The study suggests that the most commonly reported effect on health among those under a great deal of stress in the last month are bad effects on emotional well-being (63%), problems with sleep (56%) and difficulty in thinking, concentrating or making decisions (50%). Approximately 50% of those people who experienced tremendous stress and had a chronic illness or disability said stress made the symptoms worse (53%) or made it more difficult for them to cope with their chronic illness or disability (52%). Stressed people try to reduce stress levels in many ways. However, more than half of respondents did not take particular steps to decrease their stress that are often suggested by experts, which includes regularly exercising (51% did not) or regularly getting a full night’s sleep (54% did not).

These findings shed light on the importance of American teenagers’ health and reveal the benefits of exercise and sport in order to relieve stress. The Women’s Sports Foundation emphasizes the magnitude of physical activity and sport as fundamental solutions for many of the serious health and social problems faced by girls. These include obesity, heart disease, substance abuse, teen pregnancy and depression – which accounts for much of the more than $1 trillion spent on healthcare for treating these issues.

According to The Status of Health and Physical Activity of Girls in Texas, physical activity has many benefits, including maintenance of healthy muscles and bones, weight control and positive psycho-social effects. Participation in physical activity also decreases the future risk of heart disease, diabetes and other chronic conditions.

Our report, Her Life Depends On It II: Sport, Physical Activity, and the Health and Well-Being of American Girls and Women (2009), found that that “engagement in moderate and consistent levels of physical activity and sport for girls and women is essential to good health and well-being.” The study also suggests that “physical activity can lower cholesterol, reduce hypertension, and control or eliminate diabetes, as well as reduce stress.” This report further emphasizes the vital roles that sports play in the physical and social health of girls and women.

Learn more about the “Burden of Stress in America Survey” here.