You probably already know that exercise can improve your physical health and help ward off lifestyle diseases, but did you know that exercise can also help make you feel better mentally? That’s because getting physical exercise is a healthy way to combat stress.
Think about the people in your life who enjoy exercising. If you ask, many of them will tell you that hitting the gym has nothing to do with looking like a supermodel and everything to do with how exercise makes them feel. HelpGuide explains that “People who exercise regularly tend to do so because it gives them an enormous sense of well-being.”
That sounds great, right? But how, exactly, does exercise reduce stress? Before learning the answer, it’s useful to understand just how detrimental stress is in your day-to-day life.
Understand the Ravages of Stress
Stress isn’t always a bad thing. As MedlinePlus explains, stress is a normal human reaction. In fact, the body is designed to experience stress. However, long-term stress, also known as “chronic stress,” can wear the body down over time, causing a variety of physical and mental problems, including:
- High blood pressure
- Muscle tension
- Digestive problems
- Weaker immune system
- Panic attacks
Those who experience chronic stress may turn to coping mechanisms, like drinking, using drugs, gambling, overeating, or engaging in risky or dangerous behavior. Fortunately, there is another, healthier way to deal with chronic stress.
Yep, the right answer is exercise.
How Does Exercise Reduce Stress?
Just as your body was meant to feel stress, it was also meant to run, jump, and move. Performing exercise creates a cascade of positive effects throughout your body that reaches all the way up to your brain.
This Is Your Brain on Exercise
The way you feel at any given moment has a lot to do with your brain chemistry. Exercise impacts the neurochemicals in your brain, so it’s no surprise that exercise can literally change your feelings. First, moving increases your heart rate, which brings more oxygen-rich blood to your brain. Moving also stimulates mood-elevating chemicals, like endorphins, while tamping down on chemicals associated with stress, like cortisol and adrenaline. Endorphins are thought to cause the “runner’s high” that can give runners (and other aerobic athletes) feelings of euphoria during their training.
Switching Your Focus
Exercise has a natural way of disengaging your mind from the stresses of the day and forcing it to focus only on your body. Whether you are following steps in an aerobics class, performing a set of barbell squats, or taking an easy swim in the lap pool, exercise will bring your mind into the moment.
How many times have you tossed and turned in bed, letting your stress eat away at you only to feel groggy and even more run-down in the morning? Stress is great at stealing sleep, which can only increase your stress. Exercise, on the other hand, helps you fall asleep by reducing “sleep onset” or the time it takes you to fall asleep, according to the Sleep Foundation. After a tough workout, your body will need rest to recuperate. This can help you fall asleep and let you wake in the morning feeling refreshed. (Better sleep will also improve your exercise results.)
Banishing Anxiety and Depression
Exercise has even been shown to help manage mild anxiety and depression, two mental health diseases that can make stress even worse. A study out of Harvard found that running for just 15 minutes or walking for an hour reduced the risk of major depression by 26%. Exercise can also help prevent a relapse of depression symptoms.
There’s nothing like completing a challenging workout to give you a boost of confidence that can carry you throughout the rest of the day. Regularly exercising makes you feel better and sharpens your mind. It also gives you more physical and mental energy so that you can perform your best at whatever tasks you set for yourself. Finally, exercise can improve the way you feel about your body. All of these factors combined can boost your self-esteem, which, in turn, can help ward off stress.
A Self-Actualizing Cycle of Empowerment
It’s funny how stress can feel like a self-fulfilling cycle. You may feel stressed about a big project at work. That stress keeps you up at night, making you tired and irritable in the morning. As a result, you snap at your partner, causing a fight. You leave late, which your boss notices. While trying to finish the project, all you can think about is your fight with your partner. You blow the project and now worry about losing your partner and your job.
Exercise works the same way but in the opposite direction. It is a positive self-actualizing cycle. Moving your body will unleash cascades of endorphins. You’ll feel focused, energetic, and in a good mood. The confidence you feel when you finish your workout will be boosted by your positive performance at work, and the relationships you gain from having an energetic demeanor. Exercise helps you feel good, which makes it easier to do good, which will make you feel even better; on and on the cycle goes.
What Stress Relief Exercises Should I Do?
What are the best stress reducing activities? The answer is… well, just about anything that gets you to move. According to the Mayo Clinic, “virtually any form of exercise, from aerobics to yoga, can act as a stress reliever. Harvard Medical School goes a little further, noting that “many people find that using large muscle groups in a rhythmic, repetitive fashion works best.” That could include walking, jogging, swimming, aerobics, cycling, and more.
At the end of the day, whatever activity will get you moving and you can stick with over time is the best activity for you. Think about what sport or activity you enjoy doing the most or what is the easiest for you to start–that is probably the right answer.
Final Advice on Exercise to Reduce Stress
Here are just a few more pointers to get you started on your stress-busting exercise journey.
Create Achievable Goals
Stress can feel overwhelming. It can suck away your energy and make it feel difficult (if not outright impossible) to do anything other than the basics to keep yourself alive. Getting in your car and driving to the gym or hopping on your bike might be the last thing you want to do. Start small. If that means walking around the block, then just walk around the block. If it means 10 minutes of yoga, that’s great. Set simple goals that feel reachable. You can always increase your goals over time. (Learn more about creating SMART goals.)
The hardest part of exercising is taking the first step. Once you get into motion, it’s easy to stay in motion. After a while, those endorphins will kick in, and you’ll likely begin to feel more energized and happier, which will help you cruise through the rest of the workout. So, instead of thinking of the long workout ahead of you, just focus on taking the first step. Drive to the gym. Put on your running shoes and step outside. Just start walking. The rest will come.
Treasure the Feeling of a Completed Workout
So many times, a person may go into a workout feeling low, but by the time they finish up, they feel great. That’s the power of exercise. Each time you complete a workout, take a moment to be mindful of how you feel. Remember those wonderful vibes of well-being, the happy buzz in your brain, the way you feel totally connected to your body. The next time stress is weighing you down, remind yourself of how good you’ll feel after your workout.
Create an Exercise Plan
Motivation can be in short supply during times of stress. Don’t leave your workout up to chance! Plan and schedule your workouts and eliminate any hurdles that could be in your way (here’s how to create a fitness plan). That may mean booking your exercise session in your calendar, keeping your gym bag in your car, or bringing resistance bands with you on your trip in case the hotel doesn’t have a gym. (Don’t forget to add other healthy habits to your plan. Here are 10 great health tips to incorporate into your life.)
Bring a Workout Buddy
It’s hard to skip your workout when you know your workout buddy is waiting for you. Your natural competitiveness will also kick in and could lead to a better workout overall. If you don’t have a workout buddy, consider signing up for a fitness class to hold yourself accountable. The more often you go, the more likely you’ll be to start building friendships and a community. If you’re feeling extra stressed, yoga and mobility classes are a great place to start. They tend to incorporate elements of mindfulness and meditation. (Take a look at the benefits of 365 days of mindfulness.)
Understanding the Connection Between Physical Activity and Stress
Now you have one more reason to get moving and grooving. Exercise is great for your body, your mind, and your soul. While exercise can’t make a micromanaging boss, family drama, or irritating rush-hour traffic disappear, it can help wash away your stress and make you feel great so that you can be your best self no matter what life throws at you. Find an EōS Fitness near you to de-stress.