Benefits of exercise when stressed

Exercising to Relax - Harvard Health Publishing

How does exercise reduce stress, and can exercise really be relaxing?

Rest and relaxation. It's such a common expression that it has become a cliche. And although rest really can be relaxing, the pat phrase causes many men to overlook the fact that exercise can also be relaxing. It's true for most forms of physical activity as well as for specific relaxation exercises.

Exercise is a form of physical stress. Can physical stress relieve mental stress? Alexander Pope thought so: "Strength of mind is exercise, not rest." Plato agreed: "Exercise would cure a guilty conscience." You'll think so, too — if you learn to apply the physical stress of exercise in a controlled, graded fashion.

How exercise reduces stress

Aerobic exercise is key for your head, just as it is for your heart. You may not agree at first; indeed, the first steps are the hardest, and in the beginning, exercise will be more work than fun. But as you get into shape, you'll begin to tolerate exercise, then enjoy it, and finally depend on it.

Regular aerobic exercise will bring remarkable changes to your body, your metabolism, your heart, and your spirits. It has a unique capacity to exhilarate and relax, to provide stimulation and calm, to counter depression and dissipate stress. It's a common experience among endurance athletes and has been verified in clinical trials that have successfully used exercise to treat anxiety disorders and clinical depression. If athletes and patients can derive psychological benefits from exercise, so can you.

How can exercise contend with problems as difficult as anxiety and depression? There are several explanations, some chemical, others behavioral.

The mental benefits of aerobic exercise have a neurochemical basis. Exercise reduces levels of the body's stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body's natural painkillers and mood elevators. Endorphins are responsible for the "runner's high" and for the feelings of relaxation and optimism that accompany many hard workouts — or, at least, the hot shower after your exercise is over.

Behavioral factors also contribute to the emotional benefits of exercise. As your waistline shrinks and your strength and stamina increase, your self-image will improve. You'll earn a sense of mastery and control, of pride and self-confidence. Your renewed vigor and energy will help you succeed in many tasks, and the discipline of regular exercise will help you achieve other important lifestyle goals.

Exercise and sports also provide opportunities to get away from it all and to either enjoy some solitude or to make friends and build networks. "All men," wrote St. Thomas Aquinas, "need leisure." Exercise is play and recreation; when your body is busy, your mind will be distracted from the worries of daily life and will be free to think creatively.

Almost any type of exercise will help. Many people find that using large muscle groups in a rhythmic, repetitive fashion works best; call it "muscular meditation," and you'll begin to understand how it works. Walking and jogging are prime examples. Even a simple 20-minute stroll can clear the mind and reduce stress. But some people prefer vigorous workouts that burn stress along with calories. That's one reason ellipticals are so popular. And the same stretching exercises that help relax your muscles after a hard workout will help relax your mind as well.

Autoregulation exercise and stress relief

Regular physical activity keeps you healthy as it reduces stress. But another special sort of exercise known as autoregulation exercises can also reduce stress.

Stress comes in many forms and produces many symptoms. Mental symptoms range from worry and irritability to restlessness and insomnia, anger and hostility, or sensations of dread, foreboding, and even panic.

Mental stress can also produce physical symptoms. Muscles are tense, resulting in fidgetiness, taut facial expressions, headaches, or neck and back pain. The mouth is dry, producing unquenchable thirst or perhaps the sensation of a lump in the throat that makes swallowing difficult. Clenched jaw muscles can produce jaw pain and headaches. The skin can be pale, sweaty, and clammy. Intestinal symptoms range from "butterflies" to heartburn, cramps, or diarrhea. Frequent urination may be a bother. A pounding pulse is common, as is chest tightness. Rapid breathing is also typical, and may be accompanied by sighing or repetitive coughing. In extreme cases, hyperventilation can lead to tingling of the face and fingers, muscle cramps, lightheadedness, and even fainting.

The physical symptoms of stress are themselves distressing. In fact, the body's response to stress can feel so bad that it produces additional mental stress. During the stress response, then, mind and body can amplify each other's distress signals, creating a vicious cycle of tension and anxiety.

Because the root cause of stress is emotional, it is best controlled by gaining insight, reducing life problems that trigger stress, and modifying behavior. But stress control can — and should — also involve the body. Aerobic exercise is one approach; physical fitness will help promote mental fitness. But there is another approach: you can learn to use your mind to relax your body. The relaxed body will, in turn, send signals of calm and control that help reduce mental tension.

Autoregulation exercises are a group of techniques designed to replace the spiral of stress with a cycle of repose. Several approaches are available.

Breathing exercise reduces stress

Even without formal meditation and controlled breathing, the gentle muscle stretching of yoga can reduce stress. "Full service" yoga is even better. But if that's not your thing, simple breathing exercises can help by themselves. Rapid, shallow, erratic breathing is a common response to stress. Slow, deep, regular breathing is a sign of relaxation. You can learn to control your respirations so they mimic relaxation; the effect, in fact, will be relaxing.

Here's how deep breathing exercises work:

1.     Breathe in slowly and deeply, pushing your stomach out so that your diaphragm is put to maximal use.

2.     Hold your breath briefly.

3.     Exhale slowly, thinking "relax."

4.     Repeat the entire sequence five to 10 times, concentrating on breathing deeply and slowly.

Deep breathing is easy to learn. You can do it at any time, in any place. You can use deep breathing to help dissipate stress as it occurs. Practice the routine in advance; then use it when you need it most. If you find it helpful, consider repeating the exercise four to six times a day — even on good days.

Mental exercises reduce stress, too

Bodily exercise can help relax the mind, and mental maneuvers can, too. Most often, that means talking out problems with a supportive listener, who can be a friend, a chaplain, or a trained counselor or psychotherapist. But you can also do it yourself, harnessing the power of your own mind to reduce stress. Simply writing down your thoughts and feelings can be very beneficial, and formal meditation exercises have helped many people reduce stress and gain perspective.

Meditation is a prime example of the unity of mind and body. Mental stress can speed the heart and raise the blood pressure; meditation can actually reverse the physiological signs of stress. Scientific studies of Indian yoga masters demonstrate that meditation can, in fact, slow the heart rate, lower the blood pressure, reduce the breathing rate, diminish the body's oxygen consumption, reduce blood adrenaline levels, and change skin temperature.

Although meditation is an ancient Eastern religious technique, you don't have to become a pilgrim or convert to put it to work for you. In fact, your best guide to meditation is not an Indian spiritualist but a Harvard physician, Dr. Herbert Benson. Here's an outline of what Dr. Benson has termed as the relaxation response:

1. Select a time and place that will be free of distractions and interruption. A semi-darkened room is often best; it should be quiet and private. If possible, wait two hours after you eat before you meditate and empty your bladder before you get started.

2. Get comfortable. Find a body position that will allow your body to relax so that physical signals of discomfort will not intrude on your mental processes. Breathe slowly and deeply, allowing your mind to become aware of your rhythmic respirations.

3. Achieve a relaxed, passive mental attitude. Close your eyes to block out visual stimuli. Try to let your mind go blank, blocking out thoughts and worries.

4. Concentrate on a mental device. Most people use a mantra, a simple word or syllable that is repeated over and over again in a rhythmic, chant-like fashion. You can repeat your mantra silently or say it aloud. It's the act of repetition that counts, not the content of the phrase; even the word "one" will do nicely. Some meditators prefer to stare at a fixed object instead of repeating a mantra. In either case, the goal is to focus your attention on a neutral object, thus blocking out ordinary thoughts and sensations.

Meditation is the most demanding of the autoregulation techniques, but it's also the most beneficial and rewarding. Once you've mastered meditation, you'll probably look forward to devoting 20 minutes to it once or twice a day.

Progressive muscular relaxation

Stressed muscles are tight, tense muscles. By learning to relax your muscles, you will be able to use your body to dissipate stress.

Muscle relaxation takes a bit longer to learn than deep breathing. It also takes more time. But even if this form of relaxation takes a little effort, it can be a useful part of your stress control program. Here's how it works:

Progressive muscle relaxation is best performed in a quiet, secluded place. You should be comfortably seated or stretched out on a firm mattress or mat. Until you learn the routine, have a friend recite the directions or listen to them on a tape, which you can prerecord yourself.

Progressive muscle relaxation focuses sequentially on the major muscle groups. Tighten each muscle and maintain the contraction 20 seconds before slowly releasing it. As the muscle relaxes, concentrate on the release of tension and the sensation of relaxation. Start with your facial muscles, then work down the body.


Wrinkle your forehead and arch your eyebrows. Hold; then relax.


Close your eyes tightly. Hold; then relax.


Wrinkle your nose and flare your nostrils. Hold; then relax.


Push your tongue firmly against the roof of your mouth. Hold; then relax.


Grimace. Hold; then relax.


Clench your jaws tightly. Hold; then relax.


Tense your neck by pulling your chin down to your chest. Hold; then relax.


Arch your back. Hold; then relax.


Breathe in as deeply as you can. Hold; then relax.


Tense your stomach muscles. Hold; then relax.

Buttocks and thighs

Tense your buttocks and thigh muscles. Hold; then relax.


Tense your biceps. Hold; then relax.

Forearms and hands

Tense your arms and clench your fists. Hold; then relax.


Press your feet down. Hold; then relax.

Ankles and feet

Pull your toes up. Hold; then relax.

The entire routine should take 12 to 15 minutes. Practice it twice daily, expecting to master the technique and experience some relief of stress in about two weeks.

Exercise, health, and stress

Few things are more stressful than illness. Many forms of exercise reduce stress directly, and by preventing bodily illness, exercise has extra benefits for the mind. Regular physical activity will lower your blood pressure, improve your cholesterol, and reduce your blood sugar. Exercise cuts the risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, colon and breast cancers, osteoporosis and fractures, obesity, depression, and even dementia (memory loss). Exercise slows the aging process, increases energy, and prolongs life.

Except during illness, you should exercise nearly every day. That doesn't necessarily mean hitting the gym or training for a marathon. But it does mean 30 to 40 minutes of moderate exercise such as walking or 15 to 20 minutes of vigorous exercise. More is even better, but the first steps provide the most benefit. Aim to walk at least two miles a day, or do the equivalent amount of another activity. You can do it all at once or in 10- to 15-minute chunks if that fits your schedule better. Add a little strength training and stretching two to three times a week, and you'll have an excellent, balanced program for health and stress reduction. And if you need more help with stress, consider autoregulation exercises involving deep breathing or muscular relaxation. Remember, too, that mental exercises are the time-honored ways to cut stress (see box).

Popular beliefs notwithstanding, exercise is relaxing.

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Exercise as Stress Relief

By Robin Madell — Updated on March 26, 2020

When you’ve been diagnosed with heart disease, you need to manage a number of new stressors on an ongoing basis. Dealing with more frequent doctor visits, getting used to new medical treatments, and adjusting to lifestyle changes are just some of the factors that may cause you to experience stress and anxiety.

Fortunately, you can take some simple steps to help relieve stress. Many of those steps can help improve your overall health as well, including the health of your heart. Exercise is one of the best strategies for combating stress and managing heart disease.

Physical activity can help lower your overall stress levels and improve your quality of life, both mentally and physically. Exercising regularly can have a positive effect on your mood by relieving the tension, anxiety, anger, and mild depression that often go hand-in-hand with stress. It can improve the quality of your sleep, which can be negatively impacted by stress, depression, and anxiety. It can also help boost your confidence levels.

Physical activity improves your body’s ability to use oxygen and also improves blood flow. Both of these changes have a direct effect on your brain. Exercise also increases your brain’s production of endorphins. Endorphins are the “feel-good” neurotransmitters that are responsible for the coveted “runner’s high.” This is the sense of well-being and euphoria that many people experience after exercise.

Physical activity can also help take your mind off your worries. The repetitive motions involved in exercise promote a focus on your body, rather than your mind. By concentrating on the rhythm of your movements, you experience many of the same benefits of meditation while working out. Focusing on a single physical task can produce a sense of energy and optimism. This focus can help provide calmness and clarity.

Some people notice an improvement in their mood immediately after a workout. Those feelings don’t end there, but generally become cumulative over time. Chances are, you will notice increased feelings of well-being as you stay committed to a consistent exercise routine.

In addition to having a direct effect on your stress levels, regular exercise also promotes optimum health in other ways. Improvements to your overall health may help indirectly moderate your stress levels. By improving your physical wellness and heart health, you’ll have less to feel stressed about.

Among some of its additional benefits, exercise can help:

  • strengthen your muscles and bones
  • strengthen your immunity, which can decrease your
    risk of illness and infection
  • lower your blood pressure, sometimes as much as
    some antihypertensive medications
  • boost levels of good cholesterol in your blood
  • improve your blood circulation
  • improve your ability to control weight
  • help you sleep better at night
  • boost your energy
  • improve your self-image

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends getting at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity every week. They suggest breaking it down by tackling 30-minute workout sessions at least five days a week. If you’re short on time, and can’t fit in a full 30-minute session, three 10-minute workouts have been shown to work almost as well as 30 minutes at once.

The AHA also encourages you to incorporate at least two sessions of muscle-strengthening activities into your weekly routine. You should give all your major muscle groups a good workout, including your arms, shoulders, chest, back, abdomen, legs, abdominals and other core muscles.

Be sure to build up your physical activity level gradually if you’re new to an exercise program. For example, your doctor might suggest you start with 20 minutes of aerobic exercise, three days a week, and increase gradually from there.

There are many ways to meet your weekly exercise targets. What type of physical activity should you choose?

You don’t need to be a marathon runner or elite athlete to experience stress relief from exercise. Almost any kind of exercise can be helpful.

For example, consider trying moderate aerobic exercises such as:

  • biking
  • brisk walking or jogging
  • swimming or doing water aerobics
  • playing tennis or racquetball
  • dancing
  • rowing

When it comes to muscle-strengthening exercises, consider trying weight lifting or activities with resistance bands.

Even something as simple as gardening or choosing to take the stairs rather than the elevator can give you an emotional lift.

Any type of exercise can increase your fitness and decrease your stress. However, it’s important to choose an activity that you enjoy rather than dread. If you don’t like the water, don’t choose swimming as your activity. If the thought of running makes you anxious, training for a 5K race won’t help relieve your stress. Try a variety of activities until you find some you enjoy. When you’re having fun, you’ll be more likely to stick with your workout routine.

Working out with someone else can also add to the stress-busting benefits of workout. Sharing it with family members of friends can make exercise feel more like fun and less like work.

If you’re out of shape or new to exercising, ask your doctor for guidance on what forms of exercise are right for you. They can help you develop a safe and effective workout routine while taking your specific condition and fitness level into account. Discuss appropriate intensity levels with your doctor.

You can enjoy the stress-relieving benefits of exercise even if you’re out of shape or not athletic. Regular exercise can help you feel less stressed, anxious, and depressed, and more relaxed, optimistic, and happy. It can also improve your overall health, including the health of your heart.

How sport helps fight stress

July 11, 2016Sports and fitness

If stress has become an integral part of your life and you can't get rid of it, start moving. Physical exercise affects not only the body, but also the soul. They will give you peace.



People who exercise regularly will tell you that they feel great both physically and emotionally. This is because during exercise, neurotransmitters are produced in the brain, which are responsible for good mood and reduce the level of the stress hormone cortisol in the blood.

Here's how exercise works:

  1. Exercise reduces anxiety. Researchers have found that after performing a set of prescribed exercises, the electrical activity of the muscles decreases. People are becoming calmer.
  2. Exercise helps you relax. One workout relieves stress for 90-120 minutes. Some call it post-workout euphoria or the endorphin response. However, not only endorphin, but also many other neurotransmitters will be to blame for the fact that you will relax and your mood will improve.
  3. Exercise improves self-esteem. Try to remember how you felt after your workout. Usually after class, we praise ourselves for the work done and for not being too lazy and going to the gym. And the stress level goes down.
  4. Exercise improves appetite and food quality. People who exercise regularly tend to eat more and prefer healthy foods. Good nutrition helps the body successfully cope with stress and its consequences.

So, once again we are convinced that regular physical activity improves mood and helps fight stress. And yes, to benefit, you do not have to spend a lot of time and effort. We have found the easiest options for you.

  1. Light aerobic activity. Try to set aside 20 minutes a day for them. Go for a brisk walk during your lunch break, walk your dog, run in the park, ride a bike. There are many options, and most of them do not require you to have any special equipment or go to the gym.
  2. Yoga, meditation, stretching, Pilates and so on. Yoga simultaneously engages many muscles, causing them to either relax or tense. Recent studies have shown that when muscles are constantly contracting and relaxing, a signal is sent to the brain that it is time to release certain neurotransmitters. And they will help you calm down and become more attentive.
  3. Outdoor Activities : tennis, squash, badminton, basketball, football and so on. All these games help our body get rid of adrenaline and other stress hormones.

And the last. We often talk about the fact that you can go in for sports anywhere, be it an apartment, a hotel room or an office. There would be a desire. But if your goal is to relieve work-related stress, try to avoid exercising in the office or corporate gym: there are too many things or people that will not allow distraction.

You should be able to be alone and relax. Or, on the contrary, if you work alone, be surrounded by other people.

Another interesting option. Try to take 10-minute breaks every 1.5 hours of work. Walk, stretch, squat - do anything but sit in a chair. Four such 10-minute breaks during the working day can be equated to an easy 40-minute workout.

Take care of yourself. Love yourself. And force yourself to go in for sports, because now there are practically no excuses left. ;)

Sports against stress: how physical activity changes lives


© Frank Mckenna/Unsplash

Author Irina Rudevich

September 11, 2019

Sometimes a psychological state prevents you from starting classes. When there is no strength, emotions come to the fore. At such moments, it is useful to remember why sport is useful.

How physical activity affects the psyche

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Severe psychological conditions and traumas are best worked out with a psychologist first. But at the same time, physical activity remains a quick and affordable way to regain a sense of self-confidence. Back in 1769The physician William Buchan noted that lack of exercise is one of the most influential factors in making a person's life miserable and short. Modern doctors confirm his conclusions, and sports fans test them for themselves. Bella Meki, author of Jog On: How Running Saved My Life, says she suffered from anxiety, panic attacks, and intrusive thoughts. She searched for a cure for her ailments for years and ended up running. “Running gave me a sense of hope,” Meki writes, “it opened up hidden powers in me that I didn’t know I had.”

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What does the brain have to do with it

A 2019 study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry confirmed that physical activity helps to cope with chronic stress and prevents the development of depression. Scientists have made sure that moderate exercise has a positive effect on the hippocampus - the gyrus of the brain involved in emotional reactions and memory mechanisms. Brandon Stubbs, head of the NHS Physiotherapy Centre, writes that the hippocampus shrinks in schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression and dementia. At the same time, only 10–12 minutes of sports exercises have a positive effect on the activity of this area, and systematic exercises for three months provide a long-term therapeutic effect.

Why people avoid sports

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Statistics show that approximately one in four people is affected by mental illness. Despite the obvious benefits for physical fitness and emotional state, every second does not want to bother with exercise. According to the National Health Service of England, about 58% of women and 66% of men follow the recommendations for physical activity and exercise at least 2.5 hours a week. Among schoolchildren, only 17% are fans of exercises. The thing is that interest in physical activity is formed in childhood. But even if schoolchildren are mobile during games, they do not always need additional classes. But among adults, there are few of those who are quite active and at the same time do not devote time to fitness. Many justify themselves by lack of time or simply believe that an active lifestyle is not suitable for them.

Physical activity and inactivity

When there is no energy left at the end of the day, some try to relax passively. Communicate on the Internet without leaving home, play football on the console without getting up from the couch. Damon Young warns in How to Think About Exercise that we have begun to perceive our mind and body as conflicting parts and seem to have split in two. At the same time, sports help to improve both. Wybarr Cregan-Reid, who wrote Footnotes: How Running Makes Us Human, notes that running is a form of meditation that has a positive effect on the nervous system. He emphasizes that earlier there was not enough information about the benefits of an active lifestyle, but now society accepts the indisputable fact of its positive impact.

How to be treated with sports

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If you decide to start exercising, it doesn't make sense to immediately go to the gym and work out all day. To get started, try to replace the nightly viewing of the series with a leisurely walk through the neighboring streets. You will have to repeat this exercise several times before you notice the results. For people in a difficult psychological state, any attempt to play sports will seem like a mockery. During depression, many lose the motivation necessary to work on themselves. But even then, there is a way to get yourself moving—find a company. In 2018, Glasgow Caledonian University surveyed more than 80,000 people running in parks. 89% of respondents claimed that after a joint run, their mood and psychological state improved markedly.

How sport helps others

In 2012, The Running Charity was founded in the UK. Its founder Alex Eagle is convinced that exercise makes people believe in themselves. The Foundation helps young people who have nowhere to live. Many of them suffer from mental illness. These young men and women are depressed and often doubt their own abilities, receiving another rejection when trying to get a job or find housing. At such moments, it seems that everything is in vain and there is no point in putting more effort. But running gives them hope: after running their first 5, 10 or 20 km, a person realizes that he is capable of much.

“I still don't understand how it works: as soon as I put on my sneakers, my worries disappear. I can say without exaggeration that running saved my life,” Bella Meca admits.

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