For most of us, stress is a part of life. Seven out of ten adults in the United States say they experience stress or anxiety daily, and most say it interferes at least moderately with their lives, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). 40% of workers find their jobs very stressful, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. 26% report that they are “often burned out or stressed by their work,” and 29% feel “quite a bit or extremely stressed at work.”
A career change may not always be a possibility. However, there is a growing body of research that suggests exercise can help.
Yet according to an ADAA poll, just 14 percent of people use regular exercise to combat stress. Some of the worst ways stressed people may try to cope include smoking, excessive drinking, drug misuse, binge eating, temper outbursts, or other unhealthy behaviors.
While everyone knows that fitness is good for our physical health, science clearly says that exercise benefits our mental health, too.
Why exercise helps with stress
Brain chemistry has a lot to do with it. Physical activity causes changes in the brain chemicals that affect mood. Exercise increases brain concentrations of norepinephrine in brain regions involved in the body’s stress response. According to the American Psychological Association, exercise thwarts depression and anxiety by enhancing the body’s ability to respond to stress.
Exercise increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain, triggering the release of endorphins and serotonin, the “feel good” hormones.
What kind of exercise works?
No one type of exercise has been found to be superior for boosting happiness. Research has shown that aerobic, strength training, stretching and balancing exercises all had similar positive impacts on mood.
It’s a lot easier to commit to exercise when you choose an activity that you like doing. Here are some effective stress-busting exercises to try.
Walking, running, cycling or dancing are great choices that almost everyone can do. Even walking the dog counts! Another idea is to sign up for a group exercise class. Many people enjoy hitting the gym on the way home from work to de-stress.
Pumping iron is a great stress reliever. Resistance training stresses muscles, which increases endorphin production based on the intensity and duration of exercise. If you’re new to weightlifting, to avoid injury and maximize results consult a certified personal trainer to help you with proper form and technique, and to create a plan customized for you.
Yoga or tai chi
Both of these activities help your mind relax as your muscles start to work. Yoga classes typically combine stretching and poses with breathing techniques. It’s a wonderful way to de-stress and move your body. A tai chi session focuses on relaxed movements. The postures are constantly evolving and there are no pauses as the body moves from one posture to the next.
such as tennis, softball, volleyball or basketball offer vigorous activity as well as a fun social outlet. Get some friends together, or join a community league.
A recent study found significant happiness benefits of hiking. In the study, participants did about three hours of hiking, about three hours of walking on an indoor treadmill, or a sedentary task like reading or talking. Data showed that each of the active interventions yielded increased feelings of pleasure, elation, and calmness, as well as lower levels of fatigue and anxiety, compared with sedentary activity. However, positive outcomes were more pronounced in the hiking group (IDEA Fitness Journal, March 2018). Check out our Explore NC section for great ideas on places to go.
Take short breaks at work to get up and move. Aim for a 5 to 10 minute stretching and walking break every 90 minutes of sitting. If possible, go outside and get some fresh air and sunshine. It’ll help you recharge, help your body make vitamin D from the sun, and also fight SAD (winter depression).
How long to exercise to beat stress
In a study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, researchers reviewed 23 studies conducted in the past 37 years to assess the connection between exercise and happiness. The results showed that those who exercised for 150–300 minutes each week (about 20-45 minutes daily) experienced dramatic improvements in mood. The exercisers classified as “very active” were up to 52% happier than those who were less active. But even the “sufficiently active” exercisers experienced 30% more happiness than those who were sedentary.
Even if you can’t commit to 20 minutes a day, leisure-time exercise of any intensity for as little as 1 hour per week can prevent depression in people of all ages and genders, according to findings published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
In other words, do what you can — it’s all good.
Exercise and nutrition helps fight stress-induced weight gain
Chronic stress can lead to weight gain. It triggers increases in levels of the hormone cortisol, which stimulates appetite. Additionally, chronic stress is associated with emotional changes that can include increases in anxiety, apathy, and depression. These changes may lead to much higher consumption of food.
When you exercise, you’re releasing the “feel good” hormones in your body, and suppressing the stress-fueled release of cortisol. You’re also burning calories.
Another plus is that people who exercise tend to eat more nutritiously. And good nutrition helps your body manage stress better.
Don’t suffer in silence
Exercise is an amazing mood booster, for sure. But it’s not a cure for everything and everybody. If stress is affecting your quality of life, or if you think you may be struggling with depression or anxiety, it’s best to consult a mental health professional. Use our Find A Doctor tool to locate service providers near you.