A doctor explains why exercise is so good at beating stress.
The benefits of exercise go far beyond getting stronger muscles and a better-working cardiovascular system. If you’ve ever heard of post-workout endorphins, you’ll know that training does have an impact on your mental health too. But working out does do more than just give you a post-workout glow of positivity (or is that the sweat?) – it can help you beat stress in the long-term too.
’Stress’ is a word we use a lot, but while we may feel it often, what actually is it? Mental health charity Mind defines it as pressure – whether that is through events that are out of our control or make us overthink, or situations that demand a lot of our time and leave us struggling to cope.
Stats from 2018 by the Mental Health Foundation suggest that 74% of adults have felt so stressed at some point over the last year they felt overwhelmed, and while we don’t know the full impact of coronavirus on our mental wellbeing can only imagine that those numbers haven’t improved over the past few months.
How can exercise help beat stress?
“Regular exercise has been associated with general levels of reduced tension, elevated mood, improve sleep, and improved self esteem which all impact how you perceive and manage stress levels,” explains Dr Folusha Oluwajana. But how exactly is movement responsible for all of that?
Well, neurochemically, it’s to do with hormones. Exercise stimulates serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin, all of which will have positive effects on the brain and make you feel happy and act as natural painkillers. This is what is really going on when we talk about ‘endorphins’.
We should also be thinking about adding regular exercise in to our lifestyles to prevent stress, as well as use it as an immediate happiness booster. While one off sessions has been linked with a reduction in stress, it’s habitual exercise that is the most beneficial at reducing our peak cortisol levels, according to a 2019 study.
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What is cortisol and how can exercise impact levels of the hormone?
“Regular exercise can help to lower adrenaline and cortisol, which are released from our adrenal glands. These have a negative effect on the body as well as mind, with physical effects such as increasing the risk of having high blood pressure or diabetes,” adds Dr Oluwajana.
But we also need to think about the social and psychological reasons as to why exercise can reduce stress: it is a way to be around other people, perhaps a way to spend time outdoors, to be part of a community and, if nothing else, a great distraction from what is going on in your inbox.
What type of exercise is best for stress?
Great news: any movement is good movement. “A lot of research is focused on aerobic exercise, so activities that use large muscles moving in a rhythmic patterns, like running or cycling,” says Dr Oluwajana. “But actually, any activity for any length of time can have stress relieving effects.
That means that the first port of call when it comes to choosing a way to destress really lies in doing what you love. So if you hate yoga but are pushing yourself into doing a 30 minute relaxing sequence, or can’t think of anything worse than running but have heard so many people talk about how great it is – stop.
“In reality it is much more important to do something you enjoy, rather than just doing something that’s been prescribed for you. If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, doing it is only going to increase your stress levels,” reminds Dr Oluwajana.
Can exercise make stress worse?
Which brings us on nicely to this question. First of all, exercise in itself is a stress on the body, raising stress responses for a short term in order to get through the demand of training. But this stress is replaced with those endorphins. It is only when exercise is used incorrectly that it can add to our long-term stress levels, Dr Oluwajana says.
“This depends on individual content, for example if you suffer from social anxiety you join a group exercise class, that might be more stressful than relaxing for you. Those who are exercising who have physical health conditions such as heart disease or joint or muscle problems could exasperate their problems, which might indirectly affect stress levels.
“For the average person, over exercising without sufficient rest, recovery, nutrition and hydration can have negative effects too. Overtraining syndrome can lead to poor performance, feeling fatigued, make you irritable and it can affect your sleep. That’s all going to contribute to high stress levels,” Dr Oluwajana says.
Best not to ruin a good thing, we say, so always check with a professional trainer or doctor that what you are doing is good for your mental and physical wellbeing.
How can you make time for exercise when you’re stressed?
This is all well and good, but when we are feeling like we are under a huge amount of pressure and are already finding it hard to cope, slotting in time for training might feel like another load on your plate.
“If you are stressed, busy and have 101 things going on, it would probably be irresponsible to block out three hours every day just to exercise. But, along with managing stress, it’s about managing time. Factoring in just 15 to 30 minutes a few times a week to exercise is plenty,” says Dr Oluwajana.
You could also try exercise snacking, breaking your workout into little chunks. But remember that it is habitual training that makes the difference: taking some time off or reducing your training schedule during particularly stressful periods is OK. And once exercise has become a habit, it’s actually even easier to stick to your training, even during times of high stress.
If you, or someone you know, is struggling with stress or other mental health issues, you can find support and resources on mental health charity Mind’s website or see the NHS’ list of mental health helplines.
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