How To Use Exercise To Beat Stress

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June 19, 2020

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According to an annual poll conducted by the American Psychological Association, stress in the USA increases each year — and 2020 has been a year of high stress for many. 

When you experience stress, your body produces cortisol, adrenaline and other hormones that make up the physical response to a stressful situation. 

This is usually an acute response that enables you to take immediate action to face a challenge. However, if the levels of these hormones remain high for a prolonged period of time, they can have an adverse affect on your health. 

While some level of stress is normal and healthy, if stress becomes overwhelming, it can have a negative impact on your physical, emotional and mental wellbeing. When this occurs, there are ways that you can alleviate the effect that it can have on your body and mind over the longer term.

Find out: 

What are the effects of stress on the body?

Stress affects your whole body — whether you have stressful thoughts or you are in a stressful environment, here are some of the symptoms that you may experience in response to stress. 

Respiratory system

Shortness of breath or rapid breathing may indicate that you are experiencing stress. 

Musculoskeletal system

When the body is stressed, the muscles react by tensing. This response is designed to guard against injury and pain. However, if muscle tension remains constant over time, it can cause headaches and physical discomfort. 

Cardiovascular system

The hormones released in the stress response, including cortisol and adrenaline, cause the heart rate to increase, the heart to pump harder and the blood vessels that supply large muscles dilate to allow more blood flow. This prepares your body for a ‘fight or flight’ response. 

When these effects remain constant in the body for a prolonged period of time, it can have a negative affect on your health. 

Endocrine (hormone) system

The stress response in your body starts with the hormones released by the hypothalamus, located at the base of the brain near the pituitary gland. This ‘master gland’ starts the chain of events within the body that controls the stress response. 

Should stress remain high for too long, communication between the key glands and organs can be adversely affected, which can contribute to undesirable long-term health outcomes.

Reproductive system

Stress may affect the monthly cycle in women, resulting in more painful or irregular periods. 

Gastrointestinal system

Stress can impact digestion by affecting the extensive nervous system that regulates your gut and disrupting the delicate balance of gastrointestinal bacteria. This can contribute to bloating, nausea or changes in appetite. 

Nervous system

The stress response in the body is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, which is made up of two balancing components. 

The sympathetic nervous system signals the stress response throughout the body, triggering all of the symptoms listed above. Continued activation of this stress response means that these symptoms persist in the body and can contribute to poor health. 

To create balance, the parasympathetic nervous system needs to be activated to reduce this stress response. You can do this through breathing techniques and mindfulness practices, spending time with loved ones and other relaxing activities. 

How exercise can help to reduce stress

Exercising can help to reduce stress by promoting the release of endorphins, chemicals that help to improve your overall sense of wellbeing. 

In the 2014 Stress Reduction in America study by the American Psychological Association, 57% of women reported that exercise made them feel good about themselves. They also reported more energy and less stress after exercise. 

Despite this, 43% of women said that they had skipped exercise when feeling stressed, and although they reported more positive results from exercise than men did, women exercised less frequently. 

Here are some key insights to help you to choose what type of exercise to include and when you should exercise in order to alleviate stress. 

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What type of exercise will relieve stress?

Compound exercises that engage large muscle groups and activities like walking, jogging or swimming can have the most benefits, as this will stimulate the release of endorphins and other stress-reducing chemicals in the body. 

Exercise with a focus on the breath, such as yoga or Pilates, can also be incredibly beneficial. When you move in time with your breath during mindful exercise, your breathing tends to slow down. Consciously slowing your breath can help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. 

Just about any type of exercise can help you to de-stress — the key is to find a training style that puts you into a state of flow and focus.

However, the key to achieving the long-term health benefits of exercise is to find a style that you genuinely enjoy doing and look forward to. 

How much exercise should I do to relieve stress?

While exercise is important for your overall well being, too much exercise can elevate the stress response in your body. Listening to your body and allowing time to rest and recover in between sessions is key to maintaining a healthy exercise routine. 

When you are under stress in your daily life, shorter workouts spaced throughout the week will be most beneficial. Once your stress levels return to a healthy level, you can re-introduce endurance training if that is one of your fitness goals.

To relieve stress, aim for 30 minutes to 1 hour of exercise, two to three times each week. If you can’t fit in half an hour, even 10 minutes of movement can improve your mood. 

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When should I exercise?

Exercise has many benefits, including helping you to sleep better.

However, performing high-intensity exercise within an hour of going to bed may make it harder for you to relax for sleep. This is because intense exercise causes the release of hormones that increase your metabolism and brain activity, as well as encourage muscle tissue repair and elevate your core body temperature.

When it’s time for you to sleep, your body naturally produces hormones like melatonin, cortisol levels drop and your core body temperature decreases. Exercising at least one or two hours before you go to bed allows this to occur uninterrupted, so you can fall asleep more easily. 

If night time is the only time in the day that you can fit in exercise, you will still benefit from doing low-intensity cardio, yoga or another gentler form of training. 

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Seek help when you need it

When you are experiencing high levels of stress in your life, consulting a health professional or counsellor can help you to identify where you can make changes in your daily habits that will help to alleviate any stress that you are experiencing. 

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You can benefit from exercise when you’re feeling stressed

While stress generally can’t be completely avoided, caring for your health through a stressful period can help you to feel better. 

Exercise is one of the many tools you can use to manage stress in your life. Healthy eating, regular exercise and maintaining quality relationships can help you to overcome stress and live your best life. 

Remember that the SWEAT Community is always here to support and uplift each other, through the various ups and downs we experience while pursuing our fitness journeys.

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A more empowered you starts with Sweat, and our editorial team is here to bring you the latest fitness tips, trainer recommendations, wellbeing news, nutritional advice, nourishing recipes and free workouts.

* Disclaimer: This blog post is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. The above information should not be used to diagnose, treat, or prevent any disease or medical condition. Please consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet, sleep methods, daily activity, or fitness routine. Sweat assumes no responsibility for any personal injury or damage sustained by any recommendations, opinions, or advice given in this article.


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