Does Exercise Lower Stress?

There are a lot of tasks and responsibilities on your plate.

Your boss is demanding your project to be completed by the end of the month. Your kids have soccer practice, piano lessons, and play dates that you need to make sure they get on time. The weekly game night with friends is starting to turn into the monthly game night (if that). You’re having trouble sleeping at night, and you have this nagging feeling you’re going to forget to do something that just won’t go away no matter how many reminders you set or lists you make.

You’re stressed.

Exercise helps relieve stress.

You’ve heard it before. It’s been an intuitive thought for years as a way to “blow steam” and boost those endorphins.  But does exercise lower stress?

It seems like a good idea…but you’re tired, and the last thing you want to do is exert yourself even more. So, you plop down on the couch, turn the TV on, and sit for hours while eating snacks that you know you probably shouldn’t be eating.

Take a look at these stats:

  • about one-third of the adult population in the US reports that stress has a “very strong or strong” negative impact on their mental and physical health
  • nearly 25% of US adults are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder
  • over $100 billion is spent annually for anxiety disorder treatment, with cognitive-behavioral therapy and prescription medication is the most common forms

These may (or may not) be surprising to you, and you might not be a part of those populations, but chances are…you know someone that is.


Here’s the good news

Researchers have found, however, that exercise is more than a healthy cathartic act and affects our brain centers that are responsible for the release of stress-related hormones as well as anti-inflammatory and antioxidant agents. What’s more, it even helps our brain’s abilities to grow, heal, learn and remember better. (Plus, it’s cheap!)


Did you catch that?  There are at least 4 benefits of exercise on stress and anxiety:

  • It helps regulate stress-hormone levels
  • It stimulates the production of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity
  • It improves general brain health
  • It is “blows off steam” in a non-destructive, healthy way

Exercise hormones combat the effects of stress hormones

Cortisol is the stress hormone. With increased stress—whether it results from a life-threatening or non-life-threatening situation—our brain increases the release of cortisol into our bloodstream.

This process isn’t inherently dangerous; evolutionarily speaking, it helps us derive energy when our bodies aren’t adequately fed and to manage the stressful situation at hand.

It’s when states of stress are chronic, and cortisol concentrations are high that its effects on the body become more extreme and negative. For example, it’s not common for students to pull all-nighters studying leading up to finals week or professionals to work over 50 hours a week during a busy season…only to find themselves sick just as they can relax.

Our bodies deal with the high loads of stress yet suppress our immune systems, leaving us susceptible to viruses and other types of illness.

When we exercise, we release natural chemicals (called ANP and BDNF) that inhibit or reduce cortisol concentrations. You can think of ANP and BDNF as roadblocks for cortisol. When your stress levels are high, turn the “stress dial” down by exercising!


What you can do next

The effects of stress and anxiety on the body can manifest in various ways from mental fatigue and irritability to physical symptoms such as a weak immune system, increased heart rate, sweating, and sleep problems.

Try planning some physical activity to your schedule within the next few days, even if it’s just a 20-minute walk around your neighborhood.

If you are a new exerciser, take a look at the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans to get a better idea of what the current recommendations are.

As always, it’s a good idea to consult with your primary care physician to confirm the level of exercise that’s appropriate to address your stress and anxiety symptoms—especially if they are strongly affecting your daily life.

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