When you’re stressed out, it affects you both mentally and physically; since the root cause of stress is emotional, it stands to reason that gaining clarity on the issues that trigger stress and modifying behaviour accordingly can help. 

But it’s equally important to involve your body in controlling stress, as research has shown that physical fitness leads to mental fitness. In addition, research has also shown that exercise can improve the symptoms of existing mental health issues(1). So what is it about exercise that puts it at the top of most people’s list of tactics to beat stress?

What are the direct stress-busting benefits of exercise?

If you’ve ever gotten back to an exercise routine after a long break, you’d have noticed the bounce in your step it introduces. Regular physical activity can help relieve tension, anxiety and depression, and making it a part of your routine increases your overall sense of wellbeing. 

Besides improving your health, there are several ways in which exercise directly targets and reduces stress. 

  • Endorphins: Exercise fires up the endorphins, the brain’s ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitters, which are what leave you feeling like you’re in seventh heaven after a workout. Colloquially referred to as a ‘runner’s high’, even a nature walk or a few laps in the pool can produce this same feeling.
  • Meditation in motion: Movement and physical activity require you to concentrate solely on a single task at a time – your physical movements take precedence and you’ll find that niggling irritations and negative thoughts melt away. Not only does it help relieve daily tensions, it results in a boost of energy that helps you remain positive and calm as you go about the rest of your tasks. 
  • Elevates your mood: Incorporating exercise into your routine can relax you, improve your self-image and help reduce the symptoms which are associated with anxiety and depression. All of these help to lower your stress levels and set you on a healthier path of navigating your life. 
  • Social Support: The various benefits of having ample social support have been extensively documented(2), and physical activities and exercise can be social activities, as well. In fact, having a buddy to go for a swim with or enjoy a friendly game of tennis with is a great way to stay motivated and ensure you stick to your exercise routine. Exercising with a friend or in a group can end up giving you a double dose of stress relief!

What are the mental benefits of exercise?

At a neurochemical level(3), aerobic exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also releases the ‘feel-good’ endorphins, which are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators. These are what give you that boost of optimism and energy after a hard workout.

At a behavioural level, exercise tones your body, increases your strength and stamina and infuses a healthy glow. This can drastically improve confidence and overall sense of well-being and a sense of control over your body and life. A regular exercise routine can also help you achieve other lifestyle goals. 

How can exercise affect mental illness?

If you look at some of the physical effects of stress, anxiety and depression on the body, you’ll notice that they can leave your muscles feeling tense, especially in your face, jaw, neck, and shoulders, which can cause back or neck pain, or even painful headaches. It is also common to experience a tightness or heaviness in your chest, a throbbing pulse, or muscle cramps. Other issues(4) such as insomnia, heartburn, stomach ache, diarrhoea, or frequent urination may also arise. Since physical and mental fitness are so closely interlinked, the discomfort that these physical symptoms cause can lead to even more stress, leading to a vicious cycle between your mind and body.

Exercise is a great way to break out of this cycle. A recent study done by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that running for 15 minutes a day or walking for an hour reduces the risk of major depression by 26%. In addition to relieving depression symptoms, research also shows that maintaining an exercise schedule can prevent you from relapsing.

What are the different types of exercises that can help relieve stress?

All types of exercises have been found to be beneficial to relieve stress. While it might seem like a lot of work to introduce exercise into your routine at first – you will grow to tolerate it, then like it, and eventually start positively looking forward to that boost of endorphins.

Aerobic exercise is as good for your mind as it is for your body. It can bring about an amazing change in your body and your mood, with its unique ability to energise and relax and to help alleviate stress. Clinical trials(5) have verified that endurance athletes have been able to use exercise to treat anxiety disorders and clinical depression and derived incredible psychological benefits from it. 

Walking and jogging are prime examples of exercise using large muscle groups in a rhythmic, repetitive fashion – what is referred to as “muscular meditation”. They can help clear the mind, reduce stress and induce a zen-like state of calm. Stretching exercises, too, can help relax your muscles and mind alike. 

In light of the physical expressions of stress we explored in the above section, autoregulation exercises are especially useful in replacing the downward spiral of stress with a cycle of relief. You can use your mind to relax your body, which will – in turn – emanate signals of calm that reduce stress levels and muscle tension. Deep breathing exercises, mental exercises such as meditation and progressive muscle relaxation, which involves loosening up one group of tense muscles at a time, have all been found to be helpful.

In fact, one of the most overlooked stress management tools at our disposal – that we literally carry within us – is the ability to breathe deeply and properly to relax. We explore this further in the next article, the last one in our series on stress and anxiety.