Participating in exercise to relieve stress
Exercise to relieve stress: Managing stress is an ongoing process. Even when there is an absence of demands, boredom can be a trigger for negative behaviours like comfort eating. There are many ways to relieve stress. This article aims to identify how exercise in particular can relieve the effects of stress.
The content draws from my previous experience in the health and fitness industry as a fitness instructor and sports coach. It also combines my experience in stress management as a hypnotherapist.
These recommendations can help your overall management of stress. If you want to exercise to relieve stress, your individual preferences to exercise will determine how much you can alleviate the effects of stress.
Whilst all exercise is physical activity, the extent that your physical activity is structured, planned, intentional and repetitive may be open to interpretation. Gardening and vigorous cleaning can be a “workout” for some people with similar health benefits as “exercise” depending on how it’s done and on what frequency.
Exercise to relieve stress: What is stress?
Stress can be defined as the body’s reaction to perceived threats, challenges or emotional pressure. Initially, the body’s reactions can include autonomic nervous and endocrine system changes caused by the production of stress hormones. These stress hormones have physiological effects that “flood” the various systems of the body to prepare you to deal with your “stressor”. Changes include the common “fight or flight” responses such as increases in breathing rate, heart function, perspiration, blood pressure and muscle tension. Each person can usually identify a personal “template” of responses that affect you when you are feeling stressed.
Your personality type and approach to problems will affect your level of stress. How you perceive the situational factors of the “stressor” will also affect the relative “control” you have to manage it. “Stressors” can be positive (eustress) and negative (distress).
Exercise to relieve stress: Leading a healthy lifestyle to relieve stress
The connections between leading a healthy lifestyle and the benefits to your mental health are well documented. There is a growing understanding of the common lifestyle areas that are recommended to help you manage the effects of stress. These include quitting smoking; eating healthily to reduce obesity; moderating your alcohol consumption, sugar and caffeine intake; being social; participating in mentally challenging, cultural, enjoyable, and creative activities; practising relaxation techniques that can include meditation, mindfulness or self hypnosis; sleeping well; participating in some form of physical activity or exercise.
When you can “tick the boxes” related to these lifestyle areas (without being compulsive with any particular lifestyle activity), you are likely to be undoing the effect that stress has on your emotional and physical wellbeing.
Before participating in any planned physical activity or exercise to relieve stress, it’s important to check with your doctor that you have no contraindications to exercise. Where appropriate, employing an activity professional such as a gym instructor or coach to supervise your performance in the early stages will help you to build confidence and set goals in your activity. The professional will teach you how to warm up and cool down, emphasise best technique and progressions, identify safety issues, take into account your prior learning and health limitations, teach you how to incorporate breathing into the activity, overcome any exercise bad habits etc. When you have gained confidence in your activity, you may prefer to continue independently.
If you have no medical issues that prevent you from exercising, identifying a physical activity that you enjoy and find challenging is likely to have a positive impact on your stress. You are also more likely to continue participating in this activity in the long term.
Persevere with any new activity through the (usually stressful) “break-in” period of about 5-6 sessions to develop a reasonable level of competence and feel integrated into the activity, situation or membership.
Exercise to relieve stress: Types of exercise
There are many components of fitness that emphasise how the body can move including the components of power, speed, muscular endurance, agility, coordination and accuracy.
For general fitness, there are 4 broad categories of exercise. They include endurance, strength, balance and flexibility.
Current NHS advice suggests exercising for at least 150 minutes per week of cardiovascular physical activity or up to 75 minutes per week of vigorous physical activity ideally spread over 3-4 days. In addition to this, 2 sessions of strength training physical activities per week is also needed for optimal health benefits. Any (safe) physical activity is better than being sedentary; start with small goals and gradually build up your momentum.
Exercises that develop your endurance
These exercises are also known as aerobic or cardiovascular exercises since they increase your heart rate and breathing rate. They improve the health of your heart, lungs and circulatory system. Endurance physical activities include brisk walking or running, repetitive gardening activities, cycling, swimming, dancing, court sports like tennis and using cardio gym equipment.
Exercises that develop your strength
These exercises (also known as anaerobic or resistance exercise) keep your muscles strong. They help you to retain a level of independence with routine movements like getting in and out of chairs, climbing stairs, maintaining good posture when sitting, carrying shopping etc. Strong muscles (particularly core and lower body muscles) will help balance and help prevent fall-related injuries.
Strength training physical activities include using weights, resistance gym equipment and resistance bands doing exercises like weighted squats, bench press, lat pull downs etc. Exercises can also be performed with your own body weight or using non gym-related equipment depending on your current level of strength. By overloading your muscles progressively, start using lighter resistance in the form of repetitions and sets. Your strength can be developed gradually and with less likelihood of injury. This progression is particularly important for beginners and older adults.
A schedule of strength training exercises will benefit you more when working antagonistic pairs of muscle groups and working specific muscle groups on non-consecutive days to allow sufficient recovery time.
Exercises that develop your balance
General physical activity will help to maintain balance. However some physical activities will help to prevent falls when they focus on specific muscle groups of the lower body and the way that these muscles contract. Static (also known as isometric) contraction of “fixator” muscles can stabilise your posture and develop your balance. For example prolonged standing on one leg will encourage leg and hip muscles of the rooted leg to stabilise your body. Certain types of physical activity like Tai Chi and yoga combine static contraction of muscles with slow and precise movement of the limbs that can help stabilise of the body when you are active.
Exercises that develop your flexibility
When you lack flexibility, common activities like tying shoe laces or looking behind you when reversing the car can be difficult. General physical activity will help your flexibility, including walking. However, some physical activities and exercises will increase your specific joint range of movement throughout the body thereby allowing you to move more freely.
There are passive and dynamic stretching exercises that increase your flexibility, depending on how you perform the exercise. Examples include hamstring stretches and seated trunk rotations, but some activities like yoga is also renowned for developing flexibility throughout the body.
Muscles respond to stretching when you have warmed up. They are also responsive to stretching following strength exercises and cardiovascular exercises.
Activities that combine all components of fitness
Some physical activities will develop a particular type of fitness e.g. long distance running will develop your cardiovascular fitness and muscular endurance in the legs. However, some physical activities and sports can combine more than one type of fitness such as dancing, circuit training and open field sports such as football, rugby, netball and hockey, depending on how you move during the activity.
If you are deficient in certain areas of fitness (e.g. balance, flexibility and coordination, muscular endurance) and it is impacting on fundamental lifestyle functions such as climbing stairs or standing from a seated position, then a broad approach to exercising will benefit your lifestyle.
Exercise to relieve stress: How do you benefit?
Exercise releases your feel-good brain chemicals
Low mood is a common feature of negative emotional states like stress, depression and anxiety. Exercise (particularly aerobic) can boost the way that the body deals with stress by releasing the brains neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. The effect of these hormones is to boost your mood and sense of well-being, acting as an antidepressant. These hormones can also have a positive effect on attention, memory, problem-solving, low appetite and sleep cycles, which are common symptoms of low mood.
In addition to this, exercise can have an effect on the release of opioids from the brain. Opioids are responsible for regulating pain, the response to stress and control of the autonomic nervous system.
Long term exercise can help you deal with different bodily stress challenges and improve your energy levels. If you want to exercise to relieve stress, staying with an exercise programme past the initial stages is important to reap the benefits of stress reduction. When you first participate in exercise (particularly high intensity exercise), your body releases one of the body’s stress hormones: cortisol. For the sedentary individual, exercise in the short term can increase stress levels (distress). However, with persistence to exercise into the long term, exercise can transfer into positive stress (eustress) as the body learns to accommodate and adapt to the effects of cortisol.
Exercise stimulates diaphragmatic breathing
Diaphragmatic tension is a common symptom of stress. Sometime referred to as “butterflies” or that knot you feel at the top of your abdomen. Breathing techniques can be used to release your diaphragmatic tension when doing more passive activities like meditation. Breathing techniques are usually emphasised in activities like yoga and Tai Chi.
The reason that you may feel relaxed after exercise is that the oxygen demands during exercise stimulate deeper breathing; you have to access diaphragmatic breathing to balance your circulation. So if you don’t know how to breathe to relax, have anxiety when thinking about breathing or the activity of meditation is not dynamic enough for you, you can use the oxygen breathing demands in any “overloading” physical activity or exercise to relieve stress.
Exercise can release muscular tension
In addition to diaphragmatic tension, stress can also cause muscle tension and pain (migraines, headaches etc.) throughout the body. Other common areas of tension include the pelvic floor and jaw joint due to teeth grinding. Neck, shoulders, hips and muscles of the back can accumulate tension due to recurrent static postures like sitting at a desk for hours. Muscle tension can then exacerbate previous injuries or muscular-skeletal deformities.
Some physical activities and exercises like yoga and Tai Chi and weight training can target specific muscle groups by mobilising the joints and stretching the muscles in which you feel tension or lack muscle tone. Other physical activity movement like dancing can be generalised but is still beneficial to your tense muscles.
Most people can accept how poor mental health from acute stress can affect your physical wellbeing and create acute physical stress symptoms. This relationship is reciprocal however. When you have negative physical symptoms, it can influence a negative mood into catastrophic thinking, over generalisation etc. Thus, by taking care of your physical health symptoms with physical activity and exercise, your mental health can also benefit.
Exercise can be competitive (goal-oriented) or non-competitive
Competition can be both good and bad for stress depending on your beliefs, your strategy and the level of importance that you place on the competition. Developing an approach to lower your performance anxiety can help you access a performance zone in which you can get the best out of your physical and mental ability. This ability to cope with competition stress can be beneficial for both the elite performer and amateur performer when in competition.
When you have performed well in physical activities like sports that have competitive goals, it can enhance your sense of achievement and convert the negative stress into (positive) eustress. In the long term, competitive physical activities can help you adapt to the effects of negative competition stress. For the amateur performer, physical activity can help you build resilience to other life stressors by using the sporting situation as a model for coping with “real” life stressful situations.
For those who want to avoid the stress in competitions, but want to use exercise as a way of adapting to stress, your competitiveness can be internal. Setting internal goals can help you maintain a level of motivation without being overwhelmed by a competition. You can set and achieve your own internal goals relating to your repetitions, sets, weight (load), speed, distance, duration, frequency etc. depending on the type of activity and what you personally want to achieve.
Or for those who prefer non-competitive situations that are low on the stress scale, you can “go with the flow” and consider brisk walking in scenic areas. In your picturesque surrounds, you may hardly notice that you are exercising.
Exercise can be meditative
Meditation has been shown to lower stress. Some exercises like yoga and Tai Chi can be considered as meditative in which you breathe, “still” your mind as you focus into your thoughts and movement. This is in contrast to those competitive situations in which you need to focus into what you and your competitor are doing to overcome them.
Other repetitive individual endurance physical activities like running, cycling, swimming and rowing can also be an “exercise” in meditation (or mindfulness) in which you also breathe, disconnect from the world around you and get absorbed into your thoughts. Routine activity gives you the opportunity to “zone out” and deal with peripheral issues. Some athletes report how you can solve problems in a self hypnotic state whilst you exercise. At the end of the activity, you feel released from the stresses of the day.
But even weight training can be meditative with some athletes claiming that the ability to use focused thinking can improve your performance. Again, as with endurance activities, before and during weight training lift, you can breathe, use affirmations and practise mental rehearsal (visualisation) or self hypnosis to access your peak lifting performance zone. After the weight training exercises, the mental and physical rituals have helped you to lower your stress.
Exercise can be social or solitary
Engaging in social interaction with your network of family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances can encourage social support from others. Social support is considered to be an important strategy to help alleviate stress. It’s particularly beneficial for the socially gregarious and extrovert participants who feel more secure in the presence of others (and in larger groups).
When you are engaged in conversation with good listeners it can give you an opportunity to off-load and verbalise your problems. You can welcome the opinions of others to alter the perception of your own problems. Listening to others can help you consider your level of stress in a wider context. It can also develop confidence in your stress management strategies when you make suggestions for others to consider.
Group physical activity and exercise can encourage the opportunity for social interaction and the development of friendships helping you to alleviate stress. This might happen during the activity or with social opportunities after the event. Group participation can also be a motivator to participate if your friends have invited you to join them.
For those of you who have a degree of social anxiety and are more introverted, you can choose to participate in physical activities with smaller groups. For example, by playing badminton doubles or singles, you can limit your social interaction with your opponent(s) and doubles partner.
Alternatively, physical activity and exercise can be solitary, participating when you have the opportunity and at your level of competence without the interference from others, thereby lowering the stress of social anxiety.
Alternatively, if you are particularly self-conscious when exercising, you can exercise in the home. Or you can incorporate physical activity into other activities without drawing attention to the exercise e.g. by walking to work.
Exercise can build self confidence and self esteem
Situations are more stressful when they damage your self confidence and self esteem. If your work situation has caused you emotional setbacks, exercising (exorcising?) your negativity during physical activity can help you to balance your emotions in the many ways already described in this article e.g. stimulating the release of endorphins, improving cognitive function, releasing tension, achieving goals etc.
If your self confidence and self esteem are connected to your body perception, physical activity can be used to build your self esteem. Exercise can tone your body and strengthen muscles, improving your perception (and maybe other people’s perception) of your physical appearance. If you suffer with low self esteem connected to obesity, exercise can also help you to burn calories and reduce body fat, assisting in your weight reduction programme and boosting your self-esteem.
Exercise is an activity and can be so much more
Using activities to manage stress won’t help you access the cause of your stress; neither will they help you to finish an imminent project deadline. However, activities can help you to manage the effects of stress by engaging your attention into something else.
Doing nothing, or using negative coping strategies like smoking cigarettes, or even dwelling on stress can keep you replaying and exacerbating the issues, without taking control of the situation. This can be a common pattern for those suffering with anxiety and OCD. By identifying a physical activity that you enjoy, you can use exercise to relieve stress. It can serve as an effective break or time out from stress or from the recurrent negative thinking that can accompany it.
Lifestyle (physical) activities that can fulfil a variety of your needs are likely to give you higher levels of engagement, satisfaction, confidence and self worth, enabling you to escape from the stresses of your day. Physical activities like sport and exercise can offer a number of opportunities for those who have specific needs. For example, physical activity can:
- Help you learn and develop psychomotor skills that can transfer into many life situations in the home and at work.
- Be educational with progressions of attainment with or without exams.
- Develop problem-solving abilities when competing against others.
- Enhance your creative skills when participating in a variety sports.
- Encourage social interaction particularly in team sports.
- In the broader context of secular or folk religion, it can be a “religious” activity embracing aspects of ritual, emotion, devotion and community.
- Be an enjoyable activity for many people particularly when it involves dance, music and social interaction. It can be fun when it gives you an opportunity to be playful and when you can laugh at yourself! Or it can be serious depending on what you want to develop in your physical activity.
- Offer vocational opportunities for those who are passionate about human movement and its benefits. Careers include working as a participant (elite athlete), coach, instructor or teacher. Being employed in something you are passionate about and in which you have a personal interest can contribute to lower stress levels.
Exercise to relieve stress: Summary
There are many ways to manage stress. Physical activity and exercise is an effective way to integrate these benefits and relieve how your body and mind handles the symptoms of stress. It can also offer you physical and psychological health benefits when compared to some of the other stress management techniques. You can use exercise to relieve stress whilst lowering the risk of cancer, stroke, heart disease and diabetes type 2.