A doctor explains why exercise is so good at beating stress and the best exercise that will help.
The benefits of exercise go far beyond getting stronger muscles and improving heart health. 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 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 caused by events that are out of our control and leave us overthinking, 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 that they felt overwhelmed – and while we don’t know the full impact of coronavirus on our mental wellbeing, we can only imagine that those numbers haven’t improved over the past year.
How can exercise help beat stress?
“Regular exercise has been associated with general levels of reduced tension, elevated mood, better 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?
Neurochemically, it’s to do with hormones. Exercise stimulates serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin, all of which have positive effects on the brain, 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 into our lifestyles to prevent stress, as well as use it as an immediate happiness booster. While one-off sessions have been linked to 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.
If you struggle to incorporate regular movement into your day, try following the Work 5-A-Day guide in Stylist magazine’s Work It Out campaign. The idea is that you take five small breaks a day to benefit your physical and mental health and combat the rise in stress. One of those breaks should be focused on exercise – whether it be a stretch, a walk or a HIIT session, to increase energy levels and get endorphins flowing.
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, which include activities that use large muscles moving in a rhythmic pattern, 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 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 are clocking up the miles – 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.
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Can exercise make stress worse?
Which brings us to our next question. First of all, exercise is a stress on the body, as it raises stress responses for a short period in order to get through the demand of training. But this stress is replaced with 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 the individual context. 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 or irritable and it can affect your sleep. That’s all going to contribute to high-stress levels,” Dr Oluwajana says.
It’s best not to ruin a good thing, we say, so always check with a professional trainer or doctor to see if 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, which means breaking your workout into little chunks. But remember that habitual training makes the difference: taking some time off or reducing your training schedule during particularly stressful periods is okay. And once exercise has become a habit, it’s actually 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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Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).