How Exercise Reduces Stress and Anxiety

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Busy lives, early school runs, work deadlines, urgent emails, online classes, and working from home have all become a part of modern lifestyle, which is both chaotic and stressful. Everyone faces stress on a regular basis, but in order to live a happy and comfortable life, one must first recall the times when they reacted negatively to stress.

Anger, sobbing, panic, under/overeating, pain, sadness, smoking, or drug use are all possible reactions. Only once you’ve identified those reactions will you be in a better position to manage stress. We all know that exercise is a great way to improve our general health, but we never associate it with using it to relieve stress. Let’s now establish a healthy link between stress and exercise and examine their relationship in greater depth.

What is stress?

Stress is a feeling of emotional or physical tension. It can come from any event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, or nervous. Stress is your body’s reaction to a challenge or demand. In short bursts, stress can be positive, such as when it helps you avoid danger or meet a deadline.

Stress is how the brain and body respond to any demand. Any type of challenge—such as performance at work or school, a significant life change, or a traumatic event—can be stressful.

Stress can affect your health. It is important to pay attention to how you deal with minor and major stressors, so you know when to seek help.

Stress has been named the “Health Epidemic of the 21st Century” by the World Health Organization. According to the Mental Health Foundation, stress is the feeling of being overwhelmed or unable to cope with mental or emotional pressure. It is estimated that between 75 to 90% of primary care physician visits are due to stress-related illness.

Here are five things you should know about stress.

1. Stress affects everyone.

Everyone experiences stress from time to time. There are different types of stress—all of which carry physical and mental health risks. A stressor may be a one-time or short-term occurrence, or it can happen repeatedly over a long time. Some people may cope with stress more effectively and recover from stressful events more quickly than others.

Examples of stress include:

  • Routine stress related to the pressures of school, work, family, and other daily responsibilities.
  • Stress brought about by a sudden negative change, such as losing a job, divorce, or illness.
  • Traumatic stress experienced during an event such as a major accident, war, assault, or natural disaster where people may be in danger of being seriously hurt or killed. People who experience traumatic stress may have very distressing temporary emotional and physical symptoms, but most recover naturally soon after. Read more about Coping With Traumatic Events.

2. Not all stress is bad.

In a dangerous situation, stress signals the body to prepare to face a threat or flee to safety. In these situations, your pulse quickens, you breathe faster, your muscles tense, and your brain uses more oxygen and increases activity—all functions aimed at survival and in response to stress. In non-life-threatening situations, stress can motivate people, such as when they need to take a test or interview for a new job.

3. Long-term stress can harm your health.

Coping with the impact of chronic stress can be challenging. Because the source of long-term stress is more constant than acute stress, the body never receives a clear signal to return to normal functioning. With chronic stress, those same lifesaving reactions in the body can disturb the immune, digestive, cardiovascular, sleep, and reproductive systems. Some people may experience mainly digestive symptoms, while others may have headaches, sleeplessness, sadness, anger, or irritability.

Over time, continued strain on your body from stress may contribute to serious health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other illnesses, including mental disorders such as depression or anxiety.

4. There are ways to manage stress.

If you take practical steps to manage your stress, you may reduce the risk of negative health effects. Here are some tips that may help you to cope with stress:

  • Be observant. Recognize the signs of your body’s response to stress, such as difficulty sleeping, increased alcohol and other substance use, being easily angered, feeling depressed, and having low energy.
  • Talk to your health care provider or a health professional. Don’t wait for your health care provider to ask about your stress. Start the conversation and get proper health care for existing or new health problems. Effective treatments can help if your stress is affecting your relationships or ability to work. Don’t know where to start? Read our Tips for Talking With Your Health Care Provider.
  • Get regular exercise. Just 30 minutes per day of walking can help boost your mood and improve your health.
  • Try a relaxing activity. Explore relaxation or wellness programs, which may incorporate meditation, muscle relaxation, or breathing exercises. Schedule regular times for these and other healthy and relaxing activities.
  • Set goals and priorities. Decide what must get done now and what can wait. Learn to say “no” to new tasks if you start to feel like you’re taking on too much. Try to be mindful of what you have accomplished at the end of the day, not what you have been unable to do.
  • Stay connected. You are not alone. Keep in touch with people who can provide emotional support and practical help. To reduce stress, ask for help from friends, family, and community or religious organizations.

5. If you’re overwhelmed by stress, ask for help from a health professional.

You should seek help right away if you have suicidal thoughts, are overwhelmed, feel you cannot cope, or are using drugs or alcohol more frequently as a result of stress. Your doctor may be able to provide a recommendation. Resources are available to help you find a mental health provider.

How does the body react to stress?

When your body encounters a stressor (a threatening/challenging situation), the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine are produced by the sympathetic nervous system and endocrine glands. This prepares the body for fight or flight response to cope with the stressor. Cortisol production is increased if the stressor is perceived to be more of a threat than a challenge which causes energy production and suppression of immune function. The heart rate and blood pressure increases along with mental alertness and tension. Also, it can have deleterious effects contributing to diseases such as atherosclerosis, depression, and obesity.

What happens when we exercise regularly and how does it help in reducing stress?

Diverse psychological and physiological explanation exists for stress reduction effects of exercise which include the following

  1. When we perform intensive physical activity, the body considers it as a stressor and activates the same systems which are involved in responding to external threatful conditions/challenges. Hence these bouts of exercise increase heart rate, BP, and cortisol levels. Thus, when these stress systems are activated regularly by physical exercise, the body attains beneficial physiological adaptation leading the stress systems to handle stress more effectively (such as with reduced vigor and faster recovery).
  2. Distractions from negative thoughts or diversion from unfavorable stimuli during or after exercise results in improved retrieval of positive thoughts, showing the positive influence of exercise on stress.
  3. Participating in a new exciting, challenging, and interesting activity like exercise, the individual attains the motivation to grow and improve self with novel content by acquiring new identities, developing new perspectives, and enhancing their capabilities. All these contribute to a positive influence of exercise on mental health.
  4. During exercise, individuals form social interactions and relationships, finding mutual support among people engaging in common physical activities. This also plays an important role in stress reduction and improving mental health.
  5. Completion of effortful tasks like exercising and progression may elicit a sense of achievement improving mood and decreasing stress.

What can we do to eliminate stress?

Studies have shown that people feel relatively calmer after a 20 to 30 minutes bout of aerobic exercise, which can last for several hours.

To help combat stress, 150 minutes of moderate to high-intensity aerobic exercise per week or 75 minutes of vigorous high-intensity aerobic exercise per week is recommended.

Also, 60 to 90 minutes of Tai Chi and yoga performed 2 to 3 days per week is found to be effective in reducing stress and improving the feeling of wellbeing.

What are the common barriers encountered?

In addition, to understand the role of exercise to manage stress, it is also important to understand common barriers that might affect exercise participation. Lack of time and motivation in addition to fatigue, poor sleep, and dietary habits may negatively impact exercise compliance and adherence.

How can these barriers be overcome?

The idea of motivating workout partners through group workouts is a great way to give a support network.

People who are stressed out from work or family duties may find that exercising alone is relaxing.

To increase adherence, a range of exercises such as dance, yoga, tai-chi, zumba, cycling, or any other pleasurable exergame can be included in the workout regimen.

Yoga & Benefits

Whatever you do if you are too busy to exercise, moving more can help you cope with stress better. Instead of driving or riding your bike to work, go for a stroll or a bike ride. Even focusing on moving your bodies for 10 to 20 minutes can be beneficial.

So get moving and let go of your worries! The path to happiness is right in front of you; all you have to do now is start exercising and you’ll be on your way to a happy, stress-free life.

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