How Does Exercise Reduce Stress?

Published on: 10 Jun 2022
Clinically Reviewed by Minkyung Chung, MS, LMHC
woman running down street

Does your job — or life in general — leave you feeling anxious and overwhelmed at the end of your days? Do concerns about you or your family’s health, finances, or well-being keep you awake at night? Do you have trouble concentrating, or feel like you just can’t focus? 

If so, you might be desperately looking for a way to get rid of some of that stress. Exercise might just be the answer you’ve been looking for.

How does exercise reduce stress? Research shows that exercise, in almost any form, can help reduce stress and anxiety. In addition, regular physical activity offers a myriad of benefits. It of course improves your overall general health. It can strengthen your muscles and bones, boost your immunity, lower your blood pressure, increase your levels of “good” cholesterol, help you sleep better at night, and make it easier to control your weight. With all these benefits, why wouldn’t you want to exercise regularly? 

Read on to learn how exercise can reduce stress in your life, so you can feel at peace, healthy, happy, and ready to take on just about anything the world throws at you. 

How Exercise Reduces Stress

The science behind the relationship between exercise and stress reduction isn’t complicated. When we participate in regular physical activity, we see multiple benefits that are good for both physical and mental health stability.   

Endorphins

Exercising results in the body producing more endorphins, which are those “feel good” neurotransmitters that can lift your mood and give you an overall sense of well-being.

Cortisol

In addition to releasing endorphins, exercise can also help control cortisol levels, the known stress hormone that we all have. 

“Holding on to stress can be crippling, both emotionally and physically. Cortisol, our body’s known stress hormone, can often trigger inflammation which invites fight or flight for too long, leaving us feeling overwhelmed and emotionally depleted. Countering this chain reaction with physical exercise teaches our bodies to relieve stress, invite calm, and boost mood. It can be a simple, life-saving formula to relief and healing when navigating tension in our lives.”

Talkspace therapist Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C, LICSW, LCSW

Improve blood flow

Physical activity reduces stress and anxiety, in part because of the relationship it plays with blood flow. 

Physical activity can change how your body processes oxygen while improving blood flow. Stress, even when it’s just minor, can be a trigger for health issues due to inadequate blood flow to the heart. 

Meditative effects

The repetitive action of walking, pedaling, paddling, running, or doing anything active can become a sort of meditation for stress reduction.

The list doesn’t stop there, either. Adding exercise into your daily routine can have many positive effects, including:  

  • Increase muscle and bone strength
  • Boost immunity to reduce the chance of illness and infection
  • Lower blood pressure (potentially as much as some medications)
  • Increase good cholesterol
  • Improve circulation
  • Help you lose weight
  • Sleep better
  • Increase energy
  • Boost self-confidence so you feel better about yourself

How to Use Exercise as Your Stress Relief

Many people who wonder if exercise relieves stress are concerned that they don’t have time to add a major exercise routine to their already-busy schedule. There’s good news, though. 

You don’t need to make the time to train to run a marathon or commit to hours at the gym if you’re hoping to incorporate regular exercise into your daily life. For maximum health benefits, the American Heart Association recommends exercising just 5 times a week, and believe it or not, even a simple 30-minute walk can do the trick.

“Exercise does not have to be strenuous in order to have an impact. Regular and consistent movement can be the key to unlocking a very sustainable effort that you learn to love; and like any new habit or routine, small steps can amount to big change. Consider inserting cumulative exercise, without a rigid framework, to take the pressure off of executing a perfect plan. When you start to crave it, it’s only a matter of time before your mind and body can’t live without the designated time for stress relief.”

Talkspace therapist Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C, LICSW, LCSW

Below are some simple, easy-to-use tips that can help you make even moderate exercise a part of your daily life to combat stress and anxiety.

1. Talk to your doctor

Before you begin any new exercise routine, you should talk to your doctor about the type of workouts you plan on doing. This is even more important if you haven’t worked out in some time, or if you have any heart or health concerns. 

2. Start your day with a walk 

What better way to clear your head and enjoy some downtime than by going for a brisk walk first thing in the morning? You’ll be amazed at how easily you can clear your head, calm your mind, and get ready for the day when you get outdoors and start moving first thing in the mornings. 

Plus, a quick walk is a good time to mentally review your daily to-do list. You can avoid feeling overwhelmed throughout the day when you establish what you have to accomplish upfront. It’s also time for you to mentally prepare for every task. 

3. Take a bike ride on weekends  

When the weather is nice out, adding a once-a-week bike ride is one more easy way to make exercising fun. You’ll not only stay fit and stress-free, but when you plan rides with your family or friends, you can spend some extra quality time with people you enjoy. 

Let them know that you’ve figured out that the answer to the question, how does exercise reduce stress, is partially by getting the heart rate up. You’ll probably find that most people would love to join you once they hear this — who wouldn’t want to do something to help lower your stress level? 

4. Exercise while you watch TV

If your evening routine involves unwinding to your favorite television shows or binge-watching the latest series on Netflix, you can kill two birds with one stone by getting a workout in at the same time. 

Set up an area in front of your television set with a mat, a stationary bike, or a treadmill, just like at the gym. Then watch your shows while you’re getting the added benefits of working out to relieve stress. 

5. Find an exercise buddy

A great way to help you stick with your new exercise routine is by finding a friend, family member, or co-worker who’ll join you on your new stress-relief plan. If they ask you how to calm down when stressed, explain the many benefits that even a moderate exercise plan offers. That should be enough to get them on board with your plan. 

Working out with a buddy makes it much more difficult to postpone or cancel your exercise session. You’ll be less likely to want to disappoint your partner.

6. Park further away from your office

Parking a 15-minute walk from your office lets you get that half-hour in each day just by walking to and from your car. Plus, depending on where you live and work, you might be able to save some money by parking in a spot that’s free, versus in a lot or garage that costs every day.

While exercise has a myriad of physical health benefits, you can’t beat it for the mental health effects it offers. You can exercise to reduce stress, relieve anxiety, and improve your mood. 

Exercise and stress relief can allow you to be your best self. Start your day with a brisk walk, or use exercise as a reason to spend time with someone you care about. You can also find an exercise buddy who’ll help keep you focused, committed, and on track. 

Don’t forget to reach out for help. Talkspace is an online therapy platform that can provide you with therapists to help you determine which forms of exercise are best for you for your stress management. So the next time someone asks you does exercise relieve stress, you can confidently answer with a resounding YES!

Sources:

1. Jackson E. STRESS RELIEF. ACSM’S Health & Fitness Journal. 2013;17(3):14-19. doi:10.1249/fit.0b013e31828cb1c9. https://journals.lww.com/acsm-healthfitness/fulltext/2013/05000/stress_relief__the_role_of_exercise_in_stress.6.aspx. Accessed May 6, 2022.

2. Fitness. www.heart.org. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/fitness#.VtS6EBh1bYI. Accessed May 6, 2022.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.

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