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May 31, 2023 7 min read

Stress is a part of everyday life, but it’s how we manage it that makes all the difference. Finding healthy ways to reduce stress is essential for our physical and mental well-being. Exercise has long been touted as an effective method for managing stress, and for good reason.

In this blog post, we’ll explore the benefits of exercise when it comes to stress relief and provide practical tips for incorporating exercise into your daily routine.

Understanding Stress in Your Body

Before we dive into the positive effect exercise can have on our overall health, let's first understand what stress is and how it affects us both short and long-term.

When we experience stress, our body goes into “fight or flight” mode, releasing hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that prepare us to respond to a real or perceived threat. As a result, you may experience a sense of increased alertness, focus, and physical readiness.

This response is useful in some circumstances, especially for helping you perform better under pressure or handle a dangerous situation. However, when stress persists over a long period, it quickly starts to take a toll on your body.

Harmful Effects of Stress

Person holding up drawn sad face in front of their face

Even though short bursts of stress can be helpful, chronic stress often has damaging effects on your mental and physical health.

Here are some examples of the effects of long-term stress.

  • Sleep disturbances. Stress can interfere with your ability to fall asleep or stay asleep.

  • Impaired cognitive function. Excessive stress may hinder memory, focus, creativity, problem-solving skills, and decision-making abilities.

  • Changes in appetite. Some individuals may overeat as a result of stress, while others may experience a loss of appetite, contributing to either weight gain or weight loss.

  • Feelings of depression or anxiety.Stress can significantly reduce your overall quality of life by diminishing enjoyment in daily activities and limiting engagement in social events.

  • Physical health problems. Prolonged stress can contribute to the development or exacerbation of various health conditions, including high blood pressure, weakened immune system, digestive issues, headaches, and muscle tension.

Common Sources of Stress

To find the best way to reduce stress levels, it may be beneficial to first pinpoint the root of those stressed feelings. Keep in mind that they may come from various areas of your life or sources that are not listed here.

  • Major life changes like moving to a new city, starting a new job, getting married, having a baby, or going through a divorce.

  • Concerns about financial stability or debt.

  • Health complications such as chronic illnesses, injuries, or caring for a sick family member.

  • Job pressures or insecurity, excessive workload, long hours, or demanding deadlines.

  • Difficulties in personal relationships.

  • High personal standards, self-imposed expectations, perfectionism, or fear of failure.

How Physical Activity Reduces Stress Levels

Person running along path with just their legs shown

Now that we understand the effects of stress and what triggers it, let's explore how exercise can help reduce stressed feelings.

When we exercise, our body releases endorphins, which are natural feel-good chemicals. These chemicals then interact with receptors in the brain to reduce the perception of pain and trigger positive feelings in the body. At the same time, exercise may also reduce your levels of stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline.

While the release of endorphins is perhaps the most well-known way that exercise helps relieve stress, there are other mechanisms at work as well. Exercise has been shown to increase the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that supports the survival of existing neurons and encourages the growth of new ones¹. BDNF also plays a role in mood regulation and cognitive function.

Additionally, physical activity can help take your mind off your problems and provide you with a sense of accomplishment and control, which may lower stress levels and feelings of anxiety or depression.

How to Exercise for Stress Relief

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It’s time to put everything we've learned so far into action. Use these exercise practices to help you manage stress and the harmful effects of anxiety.

Create an Exercise Program

It can be hard to find time to be physically active, but to combat stress effectively, you have to practice regular exercise. Creating an exercise program for stress management may help you start to incorporate exercise as a normal part of your daily routine.

Start small and gradually increase the intensity and duration of your workouts. Consistency is key, so try to make exercise a habit by scheduling it into your day and focusing on the types of exercise that you enjoy. Other stress management techniques, such as mindfulness meditation or deep breathing exercises, can be combined with exercise to maximize the benefits.

Talk to your doctor or a physical therapist if you need help planning your exercise program.

Find the Right Physical Activity for Your Stress Reduction

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When it comes to stress relief, not all exercises are created equal.

The best types of physical activity for stress reduction can vary from person to person depending on individual preferences, physical abilities, and fitness levels. For example, one person may find strength training or aerobic activity useful, while another would rather exercise through yoga and meditation.

Choosing exercises outside your fitness level may end up causing you more stress in the long run. To make sure you stick with your new routine, try to seek out activities you enjoy. Many different forms of physical activity can become an exercise stress buster, so don't give up until you find your perfect exercise.

Here are some activities that are known for their stress-relieving benefits to help get you started.

  • Aerobic exercise. Activities such as brisk walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, dancing, or aerobic classes can elevate your heart rate, work your major muscle groups, and release endorphins.

  • Yoga. This peaceful yet powerful practice combines physical movement, breathing techniques, and mindfulness to promote relaxation and reduce tension. Yoga has been found to lower your body's levels of stress hormones like cortisol, decrease anxiety, and improve overall mental well-being².

  • Tai Chi. Tai Chi is a gentle form of exercise that incorporates slow, flowing movements with breathing deeply. Give it a try if you are looking to also improve your balance and flexibility.

  • Mindful walking. Taking a walk outside while paying attention to your surroundings, breathing, and the sensations in your body can be a meditative experience. Try to work in periods of brisk walking to experience the stress-busting benefits of moderate aerobic activity as well.

  • Team sports. Engaging in team sports or group activities like soccer, basketball, volleyball, or tennis can provide relief from stressed feelings through both physical exercise and social interaction.

  • Martial arts. Practices like karate, judo, Taekwondo, or kickboxing combine physical activity, discipline, and mental focus. In addition to helping you channel any stressed feelings, they can also improve your mental fitness and self-control.

  • Dancing. Whether it's taking a dance class or simply grooving to your favorite music at home, dancing can be a fun way to reduce stress through rhythmic movement while boosting your mood at the same time.

  • Outdoor recreation. Activities like hiking, gardening, or outdoor sports provide all the benefits of physical activity along with exposure to nature, which has been shown to have a calming effect on the mind³.

Remember, the best type of physical activity for stress-busting is one that you enjoy and can incorporate into your routine consistently. Be sure to consult with a healthcare professional before starting any new exercise program, especially if you have any underlying health conditions.

Other Health Benefits of Regular Exercise

Person walking with their bike at sunrise or sunset

Aside from easing stress, exercising has many other positive influences on our overall health, both physically and mentally. Let's go over a few of those benefits now.

  • Weight management. Exercise plays a vital role in managing body weight. By burning calories and increasing metabolism, it helps in weight loss and weight maintenance.

  • Cardiovascular health. Regular physical activity strengthens the heart and improves cardiovascular health by reducing the risk of heart disease, lowering blood pressure, and improving blood flow.

  • Mental well-being. Exercise has a positive impact on mental health by providing an outlet for the release of intense emotions. It may also help boost self-confidence and improve one's self-image.

  • Increased energy levels. Regular physical activity can combat fatigue by improving muscle strength and endurance, allowing you to perform daily tasks with less effort.

  • Stronger muscles and bones. Exercise helps build and maintain muscle mass, strength, and bone density. This is especially important in preventing age-related muscle loss and conditions like osteoporosis.

  • Improved sleep. Engaging in moderate aerobic activity may lead to better sleep patterns, thus improving both the quality and duration of rest⁴.

  • Enhanced cognitive function. Exercising may improve cognitive function, memory, and focus. It can stimulate the growth of new neurons and improve blood flow to the brain, potentially reducing the risk of cognitive decline.

  • Improved immune function. Regular moderate-intensity exercise has been associated with a stronger immune system, reducing the risk of minor illnesses like colds and flu⁵.

Exercise is a powerful tool when it comes to stress management. Understanding the science behind how exercise affects our well-being allows us to make informed decisions about how to incorporate physical activity into our daily lives.

From aerobic exercise to mind-body exercises, finding types of exercise that we enjoy helps us make exercise a regular part of our self-care routines. By doing so, we can reduce stress levels, improve our overall health, and enjoy all the benefits that come with living an active life.

(1) Sleiman, Sama F. et al (June 2016) Exercise promotes the expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) through the action of the ketone body β-hydroxybutyrate

(2) Thirthalli, J. et al (July 2013) Cortisol and antidepressant effects of yoga

(3) Bratman, Gregory N. et al (May 2015) Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation

(4) Kline, Christopher E (November 2014) The bidirectional relationship between exercise and sleep: Implications for exercise adherence and sleep improvement

(5) Niemana, David C; Wentz, Laurel M (May 2019) The compelling link between physical activity and the body's defense system