True enjoyment comes from activity of the mind & exercise of the body; the two are ever united.
Wilhelm von Humboldt
There’s just no getting around it. Stress is simply an inevitable component of life.
Nearly half of people surveyed on an annual basis about personal stress say that it is a problem that grows from year to year for them.
Since stress will always be around, the best thing we can do is to reduce its effects.
Regular exercise is one of the best ways to combat the physical and emotional components of stress for acute moments and for chronic stress.
How does regular exercise help to reduce the effects of mental stress?
#1. Exercise changes the chemical balances within the brain.
Exercise isn’t always easy, but it is an investment that is worthwhile for your brain.
Regular exercise promotes an increase in norepinephrine, which is a chemical that moderates how the brain responds to stressful situations.
Almost half of the norepinephrine that the brain produces on a daily basis comes from a region called the locus coeruleus.
This section of the brain is highly evolved in both stress-based responses and emotional responses.
It is believed to even play a role in how neurotransmitters are modulated, which directly impact that physical and emotional symptoms of stress when they appear.
When combined with an increase of endorphins, a person’s mood is naturally elevated and there is a greater resilience to pain.
As the norepinephrine increases with exercise, the amount of the stress hormone cortisol begins to decrease.
Exercise also reduces adrenaline levels, which can also stimulate stressful feelings and symptoms.
#2. Exercise reduces cognitive degeneration.
Ever notice how it gets more difficult to remember certain things as you get older?
That’s not because you’ve become forgetful. It’s just part of the natural aging process.
As cells die, the brain actually shrinks. This can cause the reactions to stressful situations to become more pronounced.
By getting regular exercise between the ages of 25-45, the brain can fight off the cell aging process.
This helps to maintain the size and health of the brain, promoting the chance to be chemically balanced so that stress hormones don’t have more influence than they should.
So how does exercise reduce cognitive degeneration? Because it has an anti-inflammatory potential.
In a 10-year study, lower inflammation levels were found in individuals who were more active at the start or exercised more at the end of the project.
Lower levels of inflammation help the body be able to stay younger and stronger.
Not every exercise can help in this area.
It is important to avoid extreme exercise because that may increase the amount of inflammation the body experiences.
Avoid using 70% of your maximum effort for more than 30 minutes on a daily basis.
#3. Exercise promotes better sleep patterns.
Getting a good night of sleep can help provide a barrier to stress.
The only problem is that many people, children included, are not receiving the right amount of sleep each night.
Less sleep is required every night to maintain good health as we get older, but adults do need a regular amount of sleep in order to be healthy.
For young adults, the recommended amount of daily sleep is 7-9 hours.
But sleep is also based on individual needs.
For some people, getting just 6 hours of sleep each night is enough for it to be restorative.
For others, they may need 10-11 hours of sleep on a regular basis to maintain their mental health.
So if you’re having trouble sleeping, then consider getting some regular exercise.
Just 30 minutes about 4 times per week can establish better sleeping patterns.
Then, with more sleep, you can fight off stress more effectively.
Any form of exercise will work. Choose an activity you like, from tai chi to gardening, and you’ll begin to experience the benefits.
#4. Exercise promotes higher levels of self-confidence.
We often focus on the external factors of life that cause stress.
There might be a problem at work. You might have just fought with your partner or spouse. Your kids might keep pushing your buttons.
These events can all trigger stress.
What we ignore are the internal triggers that can also cause stressful feelings and symptoms.
There are several internal triggers which may be the cause of stress right now that you aren’t even thinking about.
Factors such as the shape of your body, the amount of energy you have, or the feeling of being weak compared to other people can cause increases of cortisol just as much as a fight with your spouse or partner.
Through exercise, you’ll begin to see your pants becoming less tight. You’ll notice increases in both your strength and your stamina.
As your brain balances itself, you’ll begin to feel balanced. This, in turn, helps you to have higher levels of self-confidence.
And higher levels of self-confidence keep this positive cycle going.
Because you feel good about yourself and want to stay balanced, you keep cortisol at naturally lower levels.
You may also notice these 13 mental health benefits of exercise showing up more often in your life.
#5. Exercise can stop anxiety.
Have you ever worried about something that might be coming up?
Maybe you think you’ll be fired because you missed a deadline.
Or maybe you’ve got a car problem that is taking an unexpected chunk out of your budget.
Anxiety can cause a lot of acute stress to form suddenly.
This creates tension, decreases your mental energy, and can even cause problematic physical symptoms.
If anxiety is allowed to exist in a chronic way, it may cause heartburn, stomach pain, diarrhea, and even dermatitis issues.
Exercise adds a certain mindfulness element to your daily routine that can help to eliminate this stress trigger very effectively.
Something as simple as the rhythmic pounding of your feet on the ground can be enough to change your mental focus point.
Instead of focusing on the worry, you’re focusing on the sound.
#6. Exercise can help to reduce the symptoms of traumatic events.
Have you ever noticed that when an extremely stressful event occurs, you stay focused on that event?
Do you re-live that event on a frequent basis?
Do the stressful situations cause nightmares? Or do sights, sounds, or smells trigger painful memories?
These are just a few of the many ways that describe what life is like with post-traumatic stress disorder.
You might know it better by its abbreviation: PTSD.
The issue with PTSD is that people suffering from it may feel stressed out or threatened even when they are completely safe.
Because of this, many people may stay away from events, people, or places that remind them of something scary that happened.
Many people with PTSD also try to avoid having feelings or thoughts that may be related to what has happened to them.
With PTSD or similar stress-related disorders, including attention-deficit hyperactivity syndrome, the brain literally gets “stuck.”
This causes the individual to become immobile in thought, action, and deed.
Exercise helps the mind become unstuck.
Instead of focusing on the stressful memory, the brain is able to focus on the physical sensations of the exercise.
It elevates a person’s mood. It can reduce anxiety.
This allows exercise to begin acting as an overall stress-buffer so that there is a positive impact on the symptoms, thoughts, and/or feelings which are being experienced.
Outdoor exercises are especially beneficial in this area.
Mountain biking, hiking, rafting, skiing… whatever you like to do in the outdoors can help reduce the symptoms of severe and unpredictable stress.
Part of the reason for these benefits is the fact that it takes people away from the triggers that may cause stress.
Being in the mountains is very different than being in the city or vice-versa.
Outdoor exercise also requires an ongoing commitment that extends the amount of exercise being received.
#7. Exercise prevents the stress of social isolation.
When your emotional health improves, then your self-esteem can improve.
This sets the stage for your social relationships to also improve.
Increased self-confidence allows people to feel more confident in their efforts to reach out to new people.
Exercise can help you establish new relationships.
This, in return, can stop another overlooked stressor that many people face today: social isolation.
Loneliness and social isolation can lead to heart disease and other potentially negative health problems.
The effects of being lonely are just as severe as being thirsty or hungry for an extended period of time.
Research by Holt-Lunstad in 2015 even found that a lack of social connections is just as unhealthy as smoking 15 cigarettes every day.
Even if you exercise by yourself, you are joining a community of like-minded individuals who are also trying to improve their lives in some way.
When you exercise to stop stress, you are building connections with others.
And something as simple as taking a walk around your neighborhood can help you get to know more people.
A simple wave from a neighbor can have a dramatic impact from a social standpoint, which can then have a huge impact on the stress that you may be experiencing.
#8. Exercise encourages other positive habits.
When you are able to exercise on a regular basis, you’ll find that it is much easier to begin implementing other healthy habits.
Your new physical activities will require you to make healthier food choices, for example, or you may be tempted to try other new activities, such as meditation.
If you can keep up with a habit of exercising regularly, then you will create positive energy that will help you find more ways to stop stress as well.
As your blood circulation increases, you’ll feel more connected to your body.
That in itself is a lot like the practice of mindfulness meditation on its own.
Over time, you’ll notice other positive habits forming on their own as well.
You may notice that you have faster reaction times. You might find it easier to learn new skills.
For this reason, exercise really is a lot like fertilizer for the brain.
So now you likely have one question.
How can I get started with a new routine of exercise right now?
You’d like to reduce stress, but you don’t really like to exercise.
You might not like the idea of going to a gym.
You might feel self-conscious about your body.
Maybe you feel like you don’t have enough time to exercise every day.
The best way to get started is to start small.
You don’t need to run on a treadmill for an hour starting right now.
What your first goal should be is to meet the current physical activity guidelines for someone like you.
Set an initial goal to complete 20-30 minutes of exercise each day.
When you set your schedule for this exercise, be sure for the first 7-14 days to also schedule a recovery period of an equal amount of time for your body.
So if you set the goal of exercising for 30 minutes, allow for a 30-minute recovery period as well.
And if you can’t make it 20-30 minutes right now, that’s okay.
Try for half of that time, so set a goal to exercise for 10-15 minutes instead.
Then begin building up from there until you can reach a 30-minute goal.
This structure will give you three specific advantages in the coming days.
- You will already have time booked into your schedule for a longer period of exercise when you’re feeling up to it.
- You will not feel like you’re forcing yourself to return to your daily routine feeling as exhausted and sore, which will encourage you to continue exercising in the future.
- You will provide your body with the chance to strengthen itself over time.
Over time, you will be able to effectively exercise for about 60 minutes daily.
This will help you be able to experience all of the regular benefits that exercise can provide to reduce the effects of mental stress.
And it’s not just the adults who can take advantage of these benefits.
Kids experience stress too.
When kids are exercising through play, structured activities, or taking a walk with their parent or guardian, then their developing brains become more balanced as well.
This leads to better concentration levels, better grades for school-aged children, and everyone gets a better night of sleep.
Unfortunately, we live in a society that seems to demand instant gratification on a regular basis.
We want to lose an extreme amount of weight right now.
We want to reduce lots of stress right now.
This isn’t a healthy approach.
Slow and steady increases in exercise will help you maintain a healthier hormone balance so that stress can be easier to manage.
How do you manage your stress through exercise? Have any specific exercises really helped you fight off stress in your life?