The Science Behind Exercise And Stress Reduction

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated May 29, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

In general, exercise consists of activities that help people get into shape, improve their fitness, and stay healthy. Many other benefits may also come with physical activity, including reduced stress levels and improved mental health. Exercise can provide a natural, effective way to manage the sometimes-overwhelming effects of stress. With its powerful ability to reduce tension and improve mental clarity regular, exercise is often considered one of the most effective ways to fight against stress. For additional help managing stress, you may wish to consider online therapy.

Pairing exercise with therapy can help you manage stress

How does exercise reduce stress: Understanding the link

The release of endorphins is generally a well-documented benefit of physical activity and aerobic exercise. Endorphins are typically defined as natural painkillers that can be produced in the brain and body. They normally have a similar effect to most pain medications. The release of endorphins can reduce pain, increase feelings of pleasure and happiness, and reduce stress levels.

Exercising and staying physically active can also serve as a mental break from the worries and responsibilities of daily life. When you're engaged in physical activity, your mind is usually occupied, and you're not necessarily thinking about the sources of stress in your life. This mental break might provide much-needed relief and could help you return to your day with a clearer mind and a more positive outlook. Studies show that high and moderate-intensity exercise may also reduce the severity of symptoms caused by mental health conditions like anxiety. You might also find that moving your body regularly can help manage symptoms of depression and improve self-esteem..

In addition to the psychological benefits of exercise, regular physical activity may also improve your overall fitness and well-being. Taking care of your physical health can make you feel more confident and in control of your life, especially if you keep asking yourself how does exercise reduce stress. This sense of control may also reduce stress and anxiety and help you feel more capable of handling life's challenges. Regular exercising can also help control cortisol levels, the hormone that is often elevated during stress. Cortisol is often referred to as the "stress hormone," as it's usually released in response to stress and can increase feelings of anxiety, depression, and fatigue. Staying healthy with a regular workout routine can also lower your blood pressure and reduce the risk of hypertension, which is directly linked to stress symptoms.

How to start an exercise routine

Set achievable goals: Try to start with small, achievable goals, such as walking for 10 minutes a day, and gradually increase the intensity and duration as you get more comfortable. A clear plan can motivate you and keep you on track.

Create a routine: You might make exercise a part of your daily routine by scheduling your workouts at the same time every day. This can help you form a habit and make it easier to stick with your exercise routine.

Track your progress: Keep a journal or try using a tracking app to monitor your progress. Seeing your improvements can keep you motivated and encourage you to keep going.

Listen to your body: Listen to your body and try to take breaks when you need to. Over-exertion and injury can lead to burnout and make it harder to stick with your exercise routine.

Be patient with yourself: It may take time to form a new habit and see results from your exercise routine. Try to stick with it and avoid getting discouraged if you don't see immediate results. Consult your health care provider: Regardless of your age and physical health, it can be beneficial to seek medical advice from your doctor before beginning a new exercise routine.

Benefits of exercise for mental health

Exercise may have many benefits for mental health beyond reducing stress, such as the following:

Improved mood: Exercise can elevate your mood and reduce feelings of depression and anxiety.

Better sleep: Regular physical activity may help you fall asleep faster and improve the quality of your sleep.

Increased self-esteem: By setting and achieving fitness goals, you may build confidence and improve your self-esteem.

Enhanced cognitive function: Exercise can improve brain function, including memory and problem-solving skills.


The different types of exercise for reducing stress

When it comes to reducing stress, it’s usually best to find an exercise that you enjoy and that you might be able to stick with. With that in mind, there are many different types of exercise to choose from.

Aerobic exercise: This type of exercise can include running, cycling, and swimming, all of which tend to increase your heart rate and breathing. Aerobic exercise often releases endorphins and controls cortisol levels, potentially providing physical and mental stress relief.

Yoga: This ancient practice typically combines physical poses with deep breathing and mindfulness. Yoga can reduce stress and anxiety by calming the nervous system and improving overall mood.

Strength training: Lifting weights or using resistance bands can reduce stress by improving self-esteem and confidence. Strength training may also be an excellent outlet for pent-up emotions and frustration.

Mind-body exercise: Activities such as tai chi and qigong usually incorporate slow, flowing movements with deep breathing and meditation. These exercises can calm the mind and reduce stress by promoting relaxation and mindfulness.

Outdoor exercise: Spending time in nature and getting some fresh air can reduce stress and improve overall well-being. Outdoor activities, such as hiking, kayaking, and gardening, may provide a mental break and allow you to connect with the natural world.

Incorporating various exercises into your routine can be a great way to stay interested and prevent boredom. It can be ideal to find an activity that you enjoy and can stick with long-term. Try not to be afraid to try different types of exercise and see what works best for you.

Benefits of online therapy

Online therapy may allow you to process and explore your emotions and thoughts in a safe and supportive environment. Your therapist can help you identify negative thought patterns and behaviors that may be contributing to your stress and work with you to develop coping strategies and problem-solving skills. A potential benefit of online therapy is that you may attend sessions from home, eliminating the additional stressors of securing transportation to a therapist’s physical office and meeting a new person in an unfamiliar environment.

Pairing exercise with therapy can help you manage stress

Effectiveness of online therapy

While exercise can be a highly effective form of stress management for many people, it may not work for everyone. Therapy can be a valuable option if you've tried incorporating exercise into your routine and haven't seen the desired results. Numerous studies have shown that therapy is often highly effective in helping individuals manage stress. For example, a review of multiple studies found that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) could be particularly effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression, which are often associated with stress. As this study explains, online CBT is generally as effective as traditional in-office CBT and can have long-term benefits.

Exercise and therapy are generally considered to be two highly effective forms of stress management, each offering unique benefits. Exercise can help reduce physical tension and improve mood, while therapy may provide a safe space to process your thoughts and feelings.


Exercise can be a simple yet effective way to manage stress and improve mental health. Whether you're a beginner or an experienced fitness enthusiast, there may be many benefits to incorporating physical activity into your daily routine. So, if you're feeling overwhelmed by stress, consider adding exercise to your stress management plan. Additionally, online therapy can be an excellent tool for reducing symptoms of stress and improving overall well-being. Exercise and therapy often form an effective combination for managing stress and improving mental health.

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