Written By: Laurie Larson
It can be hard to equate exercise with relaxing, but in fact the two are related. Exercise is a form of physical stress that relieves mental stress. Consider it meditation in motion! Stress is inevitable, but exercise is consistently recommended to reduce stress.
The overall benefits of exercise are many: reduction of fatigue, improved alertness and concentration, enhanced cognitive function, and improved sleep. Regular aerobic exercise is also shown to reduce tension, anger, mild depression, elevate and stabilize mood, and improve overall self-esteem, which can all be symptoms related to stress.
But how does exercise specifically lower stress?
Besides improving your body’s ability to use oxygen and promote blood flow, exercise, and any physical activity, helps produce endorphins. Endorphins are a chemical produced in the brain that serve as a natural pain killer and a mood elevator.
Endorphins are responsible for the “runner’s high” sensation leading to relaxed and optimistic feelings after a workout. Endorphins generated from exercising also promote better sleep.
Stress Hormones (Cortisol and Adrenaline)
Stress sets off a chain of events in your body: stress produces adrenaline, which causes your heartbeat and breathing rate to accelerate, leading to a rise in blood pressure. These physical symptoms lead to a confrontation between you and the stressor where you must choose fight or flight.
When the stressor occurs over a long period of time and/or turns into chronic stress, your body can remain in this response period for days or weeks. Both adrenaline and cortisol impact the way your body functions during a fight or flight response. While adrenaline speeds up heart rate and boosts energy, cortisol produces glucose as fuel. Excessive amounts of cortisol brought on by stress and anxiety can lead to physical ailments over time, as well as depression.
The good news is that exercise reduces stress hormone levels in the body. Exercise creates a temporary spike in cortisol but quickly returns to normal levels post-workout, where regular exercise decreases overall cortisol levels in your bloodstream. Aerobic activities like brisk walking, bicycling, skating, running and stair climbing can effectively reduce cortisol levels in your body to bring balance and harmony back to your body that keeps anxiety at bay.
Emotional and Social
Quite simply, exercise also builds self-esteem through a sense of pride and mastery over your fitness, shape, and overall well-being. Exercise allows you to get away from it all, whether that means solitude or participating in group exercise events that can lead to meeting new people. The more consistent and committed you are to exercise, the more your sense of well-being will increase as you finish each workout at the gym.
Even five minutes of exercise have been shown to decrease feelings of anxiety. So you have nothing to lose – get out there and choose your favorite form of exercise for which you are most passionate!