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The Wavelength

Exercise And Stress: Get Moving To Manage Stress

If you're feeling stressed (who isn't nowadays?), you may want to hit the gym. It turns out that exercising can be a very effective way to manage stress. And if you hate the idea of lifting weights or running on the treadmill, don't worry, virtually any form of exercise – from yoga to boxing – can act as a stress reliever.

Physical activity can help lower your overall stress levels and improve your quality of life, both mentally and physically. Keep reading to learn more about the role of exercise in a regular stress management plan.

Why should I manage stress?

Stress is a double-edged sword. Short-lived stress can boost alertness and help you perform better, physically and mentally. It can help you run faster, think sharper, or even feel less pain in an emergency. It does this by triggering the release of adrenaline and stress hormones like epinephrine and cortisol.

But, when stress becomes chronic – meaning it lingers for long periods – these hormonal fluctuations continue to occur, which can negatively affect your immune system and heart health, and also increase your risk for chronic illness and mood disorders, such as depression.

Stress comes in many forms and can affect your body and mood in many ways, leading to feelings of worry, irritability, restlessness, muscle tension, and insomnia. Knowing how to manage stress and these unwanted effects can help you better cope with daily stressors – and exercising is one of the easiest, most effective ways to do that.

How can physical activity help manage stress?

In addition to benefiting your physical health, exercise also supports your mental health and can be an effective tool for alleviating stress. Physical activity helps enhance blood flow and supports your body's ability to utilize oxygen, both of which can directly impact your brain and mood.

Here are four ways physical activity can positively affect stress:

1. Exercise releases endorphins

When you exercise, your body produces endorphins –AKA the "feel-good" hormones. Endorphins are neurotransmitters that can elevate your mood, make you feel happier, and give you a feeling of euphoria, relaxation, and optimism following a workout. Although this is often referred to as the "runner's high," any type of aerobic exercise can provide the same feeling.

2. Exercise can suppress cortisol levels

Regular, low-to-moderate intensity exercise can help lower cortisol levels and improve resilience to stress. High-intensity exercise may actually increase cortisol levels in the short term to help the body meet the challenges associated with the rigorous exercise, but these levels then decrease post-exercise.

3. Exercise boosts mood and self-confidence

Regular exercise can boost self-esteem, mood, and self-confidence. These positive outcomes can help individuals struggling with anxiety and depression, which in turn can help them better cope with and manage stress.

4. Exercise helps clear your mind

Whether you are taking it slow with yoga, or giving it your all on a long distance run, physical activity can help you get your mind off your worries. It is a distraction from negative thoughts and stressors. By committing your body and attention to the physical task at hand, you channel your energy towards the movement and away from any negative events from your day.

What are the different types of exercise?

Exercise can be any activity that requires physical effort, usually for the purpose of boosting health and fitness. There are two main types of exercise: aerobic and strength training.

Aerobic exercise (also referred to as "cardio") provides cardiovascular conditioning by continuously working your heart, lung, and muscles. Aerobic fitness activities include:

  • Brisk walking: A fast-paced, sweat-inducing walk. Perhaps one of the easiest exercises for relieving stress, you can briskly walk indoors or outdoors – all you need is a good pair of sneakers!
  • Jogging or running: Like brisk walking, you can turn the cardio up a notch by picking up the pace and jogging or running either outdoors or indoors on a treadmill.
  • Cycling: A great low-impact cardio exercise that can be easier on your joints, especially compared to running. Cycling can be done outdoors or by using a stationary bike.
  • Cardio machines: These include treadmills, ellipticals, stair climbers, exercise bikes, and rowing machines. Because you are either walking, running, rowing, or climbing in place, these can provide a safer and more practical alternative to their outdoor counterparts. Plus, you can even do them while reading a book or watching TV (if you can do so safely).
  • Boxing: If you've ever felt like hitting something when you are stressed, boxing is for you. Whether you're punching a boxing bag or taking a group class, boxing can be an excellent way to relieve stress and anger.
  • High-intensity interval training (HIIT): With short bursts of intense movements and very few breaks, this type of workout will get your heart pumping and make you sweat. HIIT combines aerobic and strength exercises and is short in duration.
  • Dancing: If you've ever "danced like no one's watching" you may have noticed it made you feel instantly happier. Dancing is a great and fun way to relieve stress and, when done in a group setting, can promote a sense of community.
  • Swimming: A full-body workout, swimming is one of the best exercises to support cardiovascular health. It can also help you build strength, as water provides resistance.
  • Playing sports: Whether you are shooting hoops by yourself, playing tennis with a partner, or playing beach volleyball with a team, all types of sports can be a great way to relieve stress, get a good sweat, and have fun.

Strength training, on the other hand, is also called anaerobic exercise because it doesn't require the same increase in oxygen production that aerobic exercise does. It involves moving your muscles against some kind of resistance, which is why it is also called resistance training. Strength training exercise can utilize:

  • Free weights (dumbbells)
  • Weight-lifting machines
  • Body weight exercises: sit-ups, push-ups, planks, etc.
  • Resistance bands
  • Isometric or static exercises

Additionally, there are mind-body forms of exercise such as yoga and pilates that may incorporate deep breathing techniques, stretching, balance, and mindfulness.

  • Yoga involves a series of strength movements, stationary poses, balancing, stretching, and deep breathing. There are many types of yoga and levels vary from gentle to "power" flows. Yoga incorporates mindfulness and many different breathing techniques.
  • Pilates involves a series of controlled movements designed to build strength, flexibility, and endurance. It also connects your movement to your breath, requiring you to pay attention to your breathing, which can help ease stress.

Which is the best exercise for stress, and how much do I need?

If you're wondering which type of exercise is best for stress relief, it's simple: choose the one you enjoy the most. You will be more likely to do it regularly and stick with it in the long run.

When it comes to exercise, there is no one-size-fits-all. As you learned from this article, any physical activity can help relieve stress. What matters most is that you get moving and do it consistently.

As for how much you should exercise, the recommendation is to engage in moderate-intensity physical activity for 150 minutes per week, which amounts to about 30 minutes a day, five times per week. Ideally, this should include both aerobic and strength training.

Get moving to better manage stress.

Incorporating as little as half an hour of physical activity into your daily routine can significantly benefit your mind and body. The benefits of exercise on physical health are well-known – it supports heart health, healthy weight management, a healthy immune system, and can even help mitigate your risk for chronic disease. Exercise can also benefit your mental health by promoting self-esteem, building confidence, helping to alleviate stress, and even positively affecting symptoms associated with anxiety and depression.

Wondering what else you can do to manage stress? Check out these 20 Quick And Easy Ways To Reduce Stress.