Discover how physical exercise reduces stress, along with more ways to get active so you can lead a more balanced and stress-free life.
What Is Stress?
Stress is the body’s natural reaction to any change in a situation or environment that requires a response. Stress can be mental, physical, or even emotional; however, most people are referring to mental and emotional stress when they claim they are “stressed out” or “dealing with a lot of stress”.
You might be surprised to learn that people can even experience stress from positive events, such as obtaining a promotion or the birth of a child. Stress is the culmination of chemical processes in the body reacting to change and, if stress is not acted on, it can lead to distress–a negative stress reaction.
Distress alters the body’s natural equilibrium and can lead to negative effects such as:
- Elevated blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Upset Stomach
- Chest pain
- Difficulty sleeping
- Anxiety and worry
- Weight gain
- Concentration impairment
- Sexual disfunction
- Panic attacks
- Mood swings & irritability
Stress can become even more harmful when people attempt to relieve stress by engaging in compulsive or destructive behaviors, such as excessive drug abuse, gambling, food, sex, media consumption, shopping, and more. These kinds of activities can place even more stress on the body and psyche, creating a negative feedback loop of causing stress and futilely attempting to relieve stress in unhealthy ways.
The Science Behind Stress
When you perceive a threat, change, or potential stressor in your environment, a small region of the brain called the hypothalamus recognizes the threat and sets off an alarm within your body to effectively react to it.
The hypothalamus sends a message to the adrenal glands, which are located above the kidneys in the body. These signals tell the glands to release a surge of hormones via a combination of nerve and hormone signals–namely adrenaline and cortisol.
These two hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) are related to fight-or-flight responses, combating stress, and ensuring that the human body can take action to ensure its own survival.
Adrenaline, also known as epinephrine, is a hormone released into the body of someone feeling extreme emotions (such as stress), which causes the person to have more energy.
- Upon being released, Adrenaline:
- Increases blood pressure
- Increases circulation
- Increases breathing
- Increases carbohydrate metabolism (energy supplies) in preparation for muscle exertion
Cortisol is known as the primary stress hormone, responsible for curbing functions deemed non-essential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation. Cortisol is a sort of alarm system in the body that communicates with regions in the brain that control mood, fear, and motivation.
Upon being released, Cortisol:
- Increases glucose (sugars) in the bloodstream
- Enhances the brain’s use of glucose
- Increases availability of substances that repair tissues
- Alters immune system responses
- Suppresses the digestive system
- Suppresses reproductive system
- Suppresses growth processes
How Physical Exercise Reduces Stress
Exercise is the act of actively moving the body, and in some ways is a physical stressor. How then, does physical exercise relieve mental stress?
Let’s talk about the science behind exercising more and stressing less.
Physical exercise is good for your heart and overall health, but it also offers benefits for your mental state and cortisol levels. Exercise can help improve your stress levels, anxiety, depression, and for many it provides an escape from their daily struggles.
Adrenaline and cortisol provide the body with an increase of fuel to power a fight-or-flight response in reaction to stress, and exercise makes use of that excess sugar, energy, and ability to move quickly or for an extended duration. Exercise helps to lower cortisol levels and, as a result, physical exercise reduces stress and decreases the chemical distress reaction in the body. Many people report having a “runner’s high” or to describe the feeling of optimism and endorphins that accompany a particularly satisfying workout.
The most obvious benefits of exercise are physical. The body becomes more fit, gains muscle and burns fat, and can achieve more physical feats. Many people’s emotional and mental states are in some way linked to their physical states and abilities. For example, you feel good when you can push your body to beat that last run time or shed those last 10lbs to fit into your favorite jeans.
Consider the following physical benefits of exercise:
- Improved physique
- Weight loss
- Healthy blood pressure & circulation
- Increased energy levels
- Reduced risk of cardiovascular disease
- Lowered risk of some cancers
- Reduced risk of type II diabetes & metabolic syndrome
- Strengthened bones and muscles
- Extended lifespan
Along with the numerous physical benefits, exercise can also improve mental functions and provide stress relief. Exercise acts as a way to “burn off steam” so that physical exercise reduces stress, but it can also be a way to relax or meditate and calm the mind and body. For most people, regular exercise provides stress relief benefits related to their overall mood, ability to concentrate and achieve goals, and offers a way to relax or burn energy that may be pent up.
Consider the following mental benefits of exercise:
- Improved sleep quality
- Lowered Cortisol levels
- Release of endorphins
- Improved concentration
- Boosted mood and temperament
- Relieves tension
- Provides an escape
- Improved brain health & memory
Exercise Progression and Benefits
For those that lead a sedentary lifestyle, the thought of engaging in exercise might initially be met with hesitation or even outright objection. The first “steps” are always the hardest when beginning anew habit or hobby, and exercise is no different. Walk before you run and gradually work to build up your level of fitness.
Although it can be difficult to get started, exercise quickly becomes an indication and celebration of what the body is capable of doing. Since physical exercise reduces stress, even a little bit of activity can go a long way toward making you feel better and more relaxed.
A good way for most healthy adults to start out exercising is to walk. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends spending at least 150 minutes per week engaging in moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous activity. For those just starting to exercise, consider taking a brisk walk or engaging in low impact swimming a few times a week. To boost your exercise plan, you might want to add in some running or other vigorous activity throughout the week as well–though some people may need to consult their physician or a personal trainer before getting started.
A combination of moderate and vigorous activity combined with strength training will provide a well-balanced exercise routine that can help most people achieve their goals for stress relief and overall health. Even if you aren’t ready to start sprinting a 5k, any amount of exercise can prove beneficial. Something as simple as stretching, yoga, or walking can help provide stress relief and improved health.
Easy Ways To Exercise
Beginning an exercise program or routine is just the first step to stress relief. To fully gain the benefits and see how physical exercise reduces stress, try these steps:
Make Time–Allot a certain time of the day or week for exercise, even if it’s just a 10-minute walk at lunch or a brief afternoon workout video. Having a set routine can add stability to your life, but don’t worry if you can’t exercise at the same time each week–what’s important is making time to exercise at all. Instead of staying up those extra 30 minutes to watch a TV show, or playing that game on your phone, make time for a short workout or walk.
Find A Friend–Sometimes having a friend to workout provides that extra bit of motivation needed to create a habit or achieve your best. Whether it’s competitive energy or a workout buddy to keep you on track, finding a friend to workout with has shown to help people achieve their goals. In one study, 95% of people that started a weight loss program with friends, completed the program. Partner workouts or team training is a fantastic way to exercise and be social at the same time.
Set Goals–Many people don’t exercise, not only because they aren’t sure where to start, but also because they don’t have any goals in mind. You may want to “get healthier” or “lose weight”, but those are nebulous ideas that may become difficult to achieve. Try setting more structured, achievable goals–such as “lose 10lbs”, “run a 10-minute mile”, “walk 3x a week”. By creating a goal with measurable results, you stand a better chance of achieving that goal. Hiring a personal trainer is a great way to set achievable goals for your body and see how physical exercise reduces stress levels.
Try Something New–Sick of the same exercise or walking in one area? Try something new! Get involved in a new hobby or sport that promotes physical activity. Try signing up for an exercise class or going on an adventure with friends, along with anything else new that will keep you moving and active. There are plenty of outdoor activities that can help reduce stress, such as hiking, walking, running, biking and swimming. You might also consider exercise classes such as Yoga, Pilates, Zumba, CrossFit, and more!
Make A Lifestyle Change–Exercise is part of a balanced, healthy lifestyle. It can help you feel better, improve your health, and reduce stress levels. However, in order to make a lasting difference in the way you experience stress, you will need to make a lifestyle change that incorporates stress reduction and makes time for exercise.
Visit Elite Wellness to talk to a personal trainer who will create a tailored exercise plan to reduce your stress levels, so you look and feel amazing. If you’re interested in reducing your stress levels and taking charge of your fitness, take the first step and make an appointment today!
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