How Exactly Does Exercise Reduce Stress?

Health & Wellness

Here's how physical activity can rewire your brain so that you cope with stress more effectively.

Last updated: 29 June 2022
6 min read
How Does Exercise Reduce Stress?

A good workout can transform you. A tough day at work, an argument with a friend, a chaotic schedule—any of these difficulties can leave you feeling stressed and overwhelmed. Sometimes the simplest solution is the most effective: exercise.

Our brains respond to exercise in a profound and positive way. Physical activity rewires our brain at a biochemical level, helping us handle stress more effectively. That's why many scientists and healthcare professionals recommend exercise as a tool to combat chronic stress. Much like you would use medication, regular exercise is as much a treatment as it is a fun hobby.

Humans are designed to move. But more than 60 percent of adults in the US don't move enough, which could contribute to increased stress levels. A majority of Americans lead a relatively sedentary lifestyle, with many spending a good portion of their day sitting, driving or working a desk job, for example. According to the American Institute of Stress, some 77 percent of people experience levels of stress so intensely that it affects their physical health.

Not getting enough physical activity isn't the sole cause of stress, of course. Though exercise does have a powerful effect on your brain.

How Does Exercise Reduce Stress?

When you exercise, your heart rate increases. More blood is pumped around your body, delivering oxygen and nutrients to your vital organs and working muscles. Including your brain. Research has found a link between chronic stress and reduced blood flow to the brain, particularly in regions associated with emotional processing, like the prefrontal cortex. By increasing cerebral blood flow, it's believed that exercise counters the effects that chronic stress has. This helps the brain process emotions, like stress, more effectively.

The Release of Feel-Good Chemicals

Exercise also induces the release of brain-boosting molecules such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), endorphins and other feel-good neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine.

Proteins like BDNF keep your neurons healthy and promote the growth of new ones in a process known as neurogenesis. Neurogenesis directly affects the hippocampus, aka the region of your brain that's associated with learning, memory and the regulation of anxiety and stress.

Stress decreases adult neurogenesis. As a result, the size and function of the hippocampus also decline. This exacerbates stress levels and can lead to conditions such as depression. MRI studies show that people with severe depression have a 10 percent smaller hippocampal volume than those without depression.

Aerobic exercise, like running, has been found to have a particularly positive effect on the hippocampus. A 2014 clinical trial found that three 30-minute aerobic workouts per week for three months led to a 16.5 percent increase in hippocampal volume.

The endorphin release that occurs during exercise helps you cope with stress. They are natural analgesics, or painkillers. When they bind to the opioid receptors in your brain, they reduce sensations of pain and produce feelings of happiness. If you've ever felt "runner's high", that's why.

Other feel-good neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin released during exercise also combat stress. They regulate the pleasure and reward systems in the brain, regulating your mood and giving you a feeling of hopefulness. Chronic stress reduces dopamine levels in the brain, but exercise can help bring them back.

In fact, over time, regular exercise remodels the brain. You'll experience higher levels of circulating dopamine with more available receptors. Feeling happier and less stressed will become easier.

In a study that was published in 2014, researchers measured the heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol and self-reported mood in a group of participants before and after a stressful task. The participants who regularly exercised maintained a lower heart rate and had better mood stability throughout. This led the researchers to conclude that exercise can improve your emotional resilience and stress response.

What Type of Exercise Reduces Stress?

The mental-health benefits of all types of exercise are clear. But aerobic exercise has proven itself to be a particularly effective stress reliever—specifically, running. This stress-relieving exercise will elevate your mood and improve your ability to handle life's daily stressors.

Moving your entire body in a fluid motion can help you get out of your head and into your body; when you align breathing with movement, you're also becoming more present. This has led some researchers to cite running as an act of mindfulness.

In fact, a study published in the journal Acta Psychologica found that going on a one- to two-mile run improves mood, decreases stress and boosts cognitive performance more than a meditation session.

Mindfulness and meditation practices are effective ways to get yourself out of fight-or-flight mode and into a parasympathetic, rest-and-digest mode. In a parasympathetic state, you'll experience muscle relaxation, a calmer nervous system and total mind-body stress relief.

If running is an act of mindfulness and more effective than meditation, it's a powerful way to de-stress. Try to practise deep breathing throughout your run to reset your mind and get the best stress-relieving results.

If you're not a fan of treadmill running, this will appeal to you: running outside has also been shown in research to have enhanced benefits for your stress levels and mental health.

A study published in the Medicine & Science Sports & Exercise journal found that participants who went for a run had decreased stress levels and emotional reactivity, compared to those who didn't run. This is likely due to the neural rewiring effect of exercise.

Find What Works for You

If running isn't for you, don't worry. All types of physical activity can help to improve stress levels and should be used in any stress-management plan. A study published in 2021 found that moderate-intensity and vigorous-intensity exercise decreased anxiety, stress and depression among people in COVID-19-related lockdowns.

You can also do low-impact physical exercises such as tai chi or yoga. Studies have found that the breathing and meditative aspect of these two sports, combined with the exercise benefits, can fight stress. A 2018 study found that tai chi reduces anxiety as much as other forms of moderate-intensity exercise.

Bear in mind that specific exercises, and their benefits for some people, shouldn't be viewed as a one-size-fits-all solution. It's important to find what types of exercise help you feel the best. Whether that's an aerobic activity, weight training or yoga, get your body moving to relieve stress.

How Much Exercise Do You Need to Relieve Stress?

According to the Mayo Clinic, you should aim for 30 minutes or more of exercise per day, three to five days per week. This can significantly improve symptoms associated with stress, depression or anxiety. If you don't have time to exercise 30 minutes a day, even fitting in just 10 to 15 minutes daily may make a big difference in your stress levels.

While the benefits of exercise as a stress reliever may be immediate for some people, it's best to stick to an exercise programme for at least a few weeks to see any lasting benefits. And if you're looking for new workout clothes, head to Nike.com!

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