Why exercise can help to reduce stress

Why exercise can help to reduce stress

Almost everyone has or will experience stress at some point in their lives.

Stress in the short term is not necessarily bad for our health. Stress is a sign something is wrong and our bodies initiate a “fight or flight” response to indicate that we need to act now to resolve the issue, short term stress that we can deal with or we know will pass is a normal part of life. However recurrent and ongoing stress can be bad for your health.

Stress is effecting more of us and the stress levels experienced are likely to be higher due to the impact of coronavirus - fear of contracting or spreading the virus, financial worries, or concern about separation from friends and family still 2 years on. For anyone feelings stressed from these or other factors finding ways to reduce and manage it is important for our own health, and for those around us, to ensure our social and working relationships do not become affected.

The problem with stress

When stress occurs the body initiates a “fight or flight” response and stress hormones epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol are produced. These hormones increase heart and breathing rates, blood pressure, and increase energy production. To conserve energy to combat the cause of stress the immune system is suppressed and your digestive system slows, which if ongoing for a long period has further detrimental effects for our health.

The cause of the stress and our interpretation can affect how we feel and the level of our bodies’ stress response. Unfamiliar stresses and those we perceive we have less control over are cause a greater stress response. The impact stress will have on our health also depends how long it has been going on for, if it is “acute” or “chronic”. “Acute stress” occurs when the cause for stress is first encountered, the stress response occurs, and then we recover and return to a calmer state once the stressor has been dealt with. When acute stress is triggered more frequently signs and symptoms of chronic stress occur and negatively impact our health. This includes headaches, sleep disturbances, muscle aches and tension, irritability, anxiety, reduced concentration, frequent colds and stomach pains.

When Chronic stress has been present for a longer period long term health consequences can occur such as prolonged high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, migraines and muscle and joint problems. It is important to find a way to manage stress to prevent it from becoming chronic and affecting your health.

Why exercise helps

We all know Exercise is beneficial for physical and mental health. It makes our muscles stronger, heart and lungs healthier and it lowers our stress levels. Research has found the benefits of exercise can outweigh some of the negative effects of stress, as exercise improves energy levels, concentration and our ability to sleep well.

Exercise releases “feel good chemicals” in the brain, the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, which can improve our mood. Our thoughts and brain function impact our physical health and behaviours, our bodies benefit and stress symptoms such as stomach pains or muscle aches gradually reduce or disappear. The effects of neurotransmitters have been shown to last for up to 24 hours after exercise. When we feel better we are more motivated to exercise (a result of improved mood and better physical health), encouraging the endorphin effect to occur once more and stress to lower further.

Its worth learning that breathing deeply also causes your body to produce endorphins, as does laughing and spending time outside. Forms of exercise such as yoga and Pilates often involve breathing patterns and co-ordinating the breath to the exercise, making us feel even better. Exercise outdoors is often more uplifting than that indoors, combining different “feel good” factors can make your exercise session more beneficial for lowering stress. In addition to the physical benefits, exercise takes us physically and mentally away from the causes of stress. Focusing on nothing but the exercise and/or the environment creates an experience of mindfulness, improving mood and bringing feelings of positivity and calm.  

What forms of exercise are best?

All forms of exercise have been proven to reduce stress. The most research into exercise and stress has been on aerobic or “cardio” exercise. As little as 20-30 minutes per day has been proven to reduce stress and this continues if the exercise is spread out (e.g two 15 minute walks vs one 30 minute walk). Cardio exercise includes walking, cycling, running and HIIT training, to give many possibilities for different fitness levels.

Research into mind-body exercise has found as little as 15 minutes of yoga is effective in reducing feelings of stress. Other great forms of mind-body exercise include Pilates, tai-chi and qui-gong, and many exercise instructors teach combined workouts online and in person.

If resistance exercise is more your thing, exercises for all the major muscle groups of the body at moderate intensity of 8 -12 repetitions using body weight, weights or resistance bands will be sufficient to have an effect on mental and physical health.

To ensure the positive effects of exercise on stress are maintained you should aim to exercise at least 3 times per week. It is important to choose something you enjoy and to exercise at an intensity that feels good for your body, to aid motivation and to further combat stress.

If you need further motivation on exercise to overcome stress, or are concerned an injury may hold you back, seek out an experienced fitness instructor, personal trainer or physiotherapist to help you get started online or in person.

Claire Gurney Physiotherapist

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