Think about the last time you were stressed – did you exercise that day?
Sadly, for many of us the answer is no. While we all know about the physical benefits of exercise, we rarely think about exercising to improve our mental health.
But it turns out that exercise is one of the best things you can do to develop a healthier brain and reduce the amount of stress you feel in your life. If you feel regularly stressed and aren’t frequently exercising, a bit of physical activity might be just what you need.
Let’s dig into the science behind how exercise reduces stress, and then cover a few ways you can start using it to your advantage.
Exercise Creates Chemical Changes in Your Brain
When you face a potential stressful situation, a hormone called cortisol gets released into your body. The job of cortisol is to kick your brain and body into survival mode. It adjusts your blood sugar, metabolism, immune response, heart and blood vessel contractions, and other important internal functions to get you ready to fight or fly.
Basically, cortisol makes everything in your body run at 200% which is great for when you need to escape from a lion, but bad for long term health.
Exercise creates stress on your body which makes it release cortisol, but exercising regularly also decreases the amount of cortisol released in response to stressors. It may sound contradictory but here’s how it works. Let’s say you start a running habit, and you’re running 20 minute miles. The act of running and stressing your body will release a certain amount of cortisol, but as you train, you’ll get faster and your body will become more efficient at managing the physical stress and actually release less cortisol.
The more training you do, the better your body will become at dealing with physical stress.
As you train your body to manage these physical stresses and release less cortisol during them, it will also start to release less cortisol during stressful but less physical situations (like a work meeting) because it’s been conditioned to release it in higher stress situations (like a bootcamp instructor pushing you to run faster).
Exercising releases natural painkillers, too, called endorphins, which are responsible for that “runner’s high” you may have experienced. They boost your mood, inhibit the amount of pain you experience, and can create the feeling of relaxation and positivity that comes after workout sessions.
Aerobic exercises, which specifically uses oxygen to meet energy demands, will best release endorphins and help regulate cortisol levels. So, hop on the treadmill, go on a bike ride, swim a few laps in the pool – pick any of these to get your heart and lungs working.
Another important hormone involved in regulating your stress response is norepinephrine, which is released by your adrenal glands when you’re feeling stressed. What’s interesting is that the “locus coeruleus” part of the brain that produces 50% of your norepinephrine is highly connected to brain regions involved in both emotion and stress responses.
When that area senses a heightened situation, it releases norepinephrine which turns on other neurotransmitters that respond to the stress. These neurotransmitters fire off and tell your heart to beat faster, your lungs to breathe faster, and your muscles to tense up for battle.
Exercise helps reduce the intensity of these responses because it trains your body’s internal systems to regulate the release of norepinephrine.
Your cardiovascular, renal, and muscular systems are all working faster to respond to the perceived stress. Exercise will help you train those systems to communicate with each other better.
According to the American Psychological Association: “working out your body’s inside communication system means it becomes more efficient in responding to stress in future situations”.
Once again, the best workouts to train your internal communication system involve aerobic exercises. We’re sensing a pattern here (and it has to do with breath). Aerobic exercises specifically stimulates the heart and lungs to strengthen them in utilizing oxygen.
Exercise Stimulates Healthy Behavior
Physical activity makes your body happier – we weren’t meant to live sedentary lives. Adding exercise to your life not only helps you be less stressed, it will also give you new tools for dealing with stressful situations.
As you power through work-out sessions, your discipline will improve. Your stamina and tolerance for “tough” situations will increase.
Exercise can also refresh your energy. The release of endorphins, the increase of oxygen to your blood, and the strengthening of muscles goes a long way to build endurance. In fact those with excellent cardiovascular fitness often have lower heart-rates during the day. Your body’s tolerance for stressful situations increases.
Doing a headstand in yoga, running a marathon in record time, or benchpressing 250 lbs. are incredible feats of physical activity. The sense of accomplishment that comes with achieving feats like this contributes to self-confidence.
Exercise also has a positive effect on those who suffer from low self-esteem because of body image. Your personal body image is important when it comes to your overall sense of wellbeing.
So let yourself feel as good as you look!
Exercise is Meditation & Meditation is Good for Stress-Reduction
Think of exercise as meditation in motion. When you meditate, you give your brain a chance to clear away the information overload that’s been building up over time. Studies have also shown that meditation not only lowers stress but causes a change in your brain – affecting learning, cognition, memory, and emotional regulation.
When you’re fully engaged in a workout, you’re focused on how your body feels. You’re focused on getting air to your lungs. You’re focused on the movement of your muscles.
Your attention is diverted from the negative thoughts of the day and is redirected to the present moment. The physical movement gives your wandering mind a break. Your brain has a chance to clear away information that’s not important.
Instead of pulling your mind in a million, different directions – exercise makes you concentrate on one task. You can finish a workout session with the same feeling of clarity, renewed energy that you get from meditation.
Regular exercise causes similar changes in your brain as meditation too – one study found that aerobic exercise significantly increased memory and learning performance.
Exercise allows you to detach your mind from the chaos of the day, to reconnect with your breath, and creates beneficial changes in your brain – just like meditation.
Here’s How to Start Using Exercise to Reduce Stress
The good news is that even five minutes of aerobic exercise can lower anxiety and tension. Get inspired with these workouts under 10 minutes.
However, the key to using exercise for a stress-free life is to maintain a routine you can follow every day. Use these tips to establish your new workout routine:
- Start Small
Starting with smaller goals like a 10 minute walk after lunch or getting up early on the weekends are great foundations to get to the big dream. It’s important to make one change at a time so you’re not overwhelmed.
- Make a Plan
Take the time physically write down (or type out) your workout session in your schedule. Putting it down on paper or in your Google calendar will help you think of working out as a commitment you can’t break.
As you try out different workouts, pay attention to which activities you look forward to. Incorporate more of those activities into your schedule. For example, you might like upbeat dance classes versus running solo. Repositioning your work out as a fun hobby instead of “exercise” will help in the long run.
- Be Prepared to Fall Off Your Plan
Then, forgive yourself. More importantly, try again. Think about what made you fall of your plan and see if you can eliminate or modify those triggers. Feeling too drained after work? Work out in the morning or after lunch. Forgot to pack your gym clothes? Pack them the night before. Be conscious of your current habits so you can transform them into new ones.
- Exercise With Friends
Use your workout time as an excuse to hang out with friends. Go for a hike, take up a Zumba class, or join a league with a buddy. You can use social workout apps like Strava to find workout partners. The important thing is to keep each other accountable and actually work out!
- Use Technology
There’s an app for anything, including physical fitness. We recommend apps like Move that remind you to get up and track your activity. To help you stay committed, use Habit List.
Need better extrinsic motivation? If you want to do more good in the world, you can use Charity Miles which donates to charity for every run completed. If you want to earn cash for being healthy, Pact lets you (and other people) place bets on whether you work out or not.
Ultimately, stress is rooted in heightened emotional responses to external stimuli so the best way to manage it is to gain insight on what stresses you out, using a device like Spire.
But stress also affects your physical well-being so it’s important to include your body in the stress-management plan. Maintaining a regular schedule of exercise is a great way to do that.