Beat stress with exercise

Feeling stressed or anxious? A sure-fire way to start feeling better is to get moving…

We all feel stressed or worried from time to time. It’s part of being human. Whether we’re worrying about paying the bills, the health of a loved one, or just wondering how to deal with the long list of tasks we need to do, the effects of stress are still the same.

But did you know that too much stress can lead to a number of health problems?

What happens when we’re stressed?

We all have a stress-response that kicks in when we perceive a threat. Our body releases a surge of hormones including adrenaline and cortisol, as a defense mechanism. It’s part of the ‘fight or flight’ response, designed to keep us safe.

  • Adrenaline causes our heart to race, raises our blood pressure and boosts our energy levels.
  • Cortisol is the primary stress hormone and increases glucose in the bloodstream, enhances our brain’s use of this glucose, and increases the availability of chemicals that repair tissue. It also limits the functions of other bodily processes, not essential during a ‘fight or flight’ response (i.e. digestive and reproductive systems), and alters our mood.

This stress response is triggered by both physical threats (e.g. someone trying to harm you), and psychological threats (e.g. death of a loved one, financial issues, or pressures at work).

The effects of long-term stress

There will always be situations that cause us to feel stressed. However, if we don’t learn how to relieve it, or we are in a constant state of feeling stressed, we may be putting our health at risk. Long-term exposure to cortisol and other stress hormones can disrupt most of your body’s systems, putting you at greater risk of:

  • Depression and anxiety
  • Heart disease
  • Weight gain and obesity
  • Digestive issues
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Headaches
  • Susceptibility to colds and infection
  • Poor mood
  • Impaired memory and concentration.

How exercise helps

While it’s impossible to eliminate stressful situations altogether, we can take steps to alleviate our stress response, and stress levels. One of the best ways to do this is to exercise regularly. There are several reasons why:

  • Physical activity reduces the level of stress hormones, while producing endorphins (‘feel-good’ chemicals), that help elevate mood and promote feelings of relaxation and optimism after a workout.
  • Exercise increases the flow of oxygen throughout your body, and stimulates the nervous system, helping you release tension in the body.
  • Exercise can provide you with a distraction for your stress.
  • Working out can increase your confidence in yourself, and your ability to deal with stressful situations.

What type of exercise?

Any kind of exercise can provide stress relief—and you don’t have to be super-fit or athletic to reap the benefits. Activities such as yoga, walking, swimming, and cycling can all help. Some people find a simple walk or a stretch is enough to calm the mind and reduce stress, while others prefer a more vigorous workout such as gym programs or running, to ‘burn off’ the worry.

While the type of exercise doesn’t really matter, research has shown that exercising outdoors has added benefits for stress relief. 

What does this mean for you?

Put simply, if you want to reduce your stress, it will help if you increase your movement. While exercising outdoors may have added benefits—think lunchtime walk in the park, a walk on the beach, a hike in the mountains, or even stretching in the backyard—any type of exercise will make you feel better.

Choose something you enjoy and start making it a habit. If you find talking is stress relief in itself, enlist the support of a friend and workout together. Want to spend time with your family? Take your kids to the park or local swimming pool.

Ideally, you should try to be active on most days. However, if it’s been a while since you’ve exercised, start small and build from there, and make sure you get the all-clear from your doctor.