How Does Exercise Reduce Stress?

By BetterHelp Editorial Team|Updated April 5, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Dawn Brown, LPC

Unless you’re big into the wellness world we tend to have a pretty dualistic view of ourselves. Seventeenth-century French Philosopher René Descartes would love that we don’t often talk about physical and mental health in the same sentence – unless we’re saying something bad.

What do you do when you feel stressed? Put on some music? Try to clear your head? They’re great places to start. But doing physical activities, like running or lifting weights can also lift your spirits. We’ll explore how it works and how to take advantage of it.

Getting Started with Exercise

Before we dive into how exercise reduces stress and how it can even be used to combat depression and anxiety, a word of caution.

If you aren’t currently exercising, talk to your healthcare provider before doing anything too intense. That’s particularly true if you are older, overweight, or have other health conditions like cardiovascular disease.

This isn’t only so that you don’t hurt yourself. Your healthcare provider can help you pick exercises that are right for your fitness level and health. We’ll also talk later in the article about how a healthcare provider can help you set goals for your activity to make you feel even better – in general, and about yourself.

That having been said, most of the exercises that have proven best at reducing stress are milder exercises like swimming, yoga, and running. The most intensive of these is running – something that you can ease into if you’re not doing it already.

The Mind-Body Connection

Your nervous system – responsible for how you think and feel as well as how your body works – runs on chemical messengers called “hormones” and “neurotransmitters.” There are subtle differences between the two, but that’s beyond the scope of today’s article.

The important thing is that both of these groups of chemical messengers have influence on both your body and your mind. Your body releases them in response to certain stimuli, including physical exertion. In otherwise, moving your body can change your mind and emotions.

Hormones and neurotransmitters are a complicated chemical cocktail. So, we’ll just look at those that are most important to exercise and stress.

Exercise and Other Drugs

Endorphins are natural painkillers that your body releases when you’re stressed or hurt.

Your body releases endorphins in the midst of a hard workout for two main reasons. One is that working out can be painful. Your muscles undergo some wear and tear. While this is healthy and perfectly safe, endorphins help you to power through it.

The other reason is that your body is famously bad at telling false threats from real threats. When you engage in physical exertion, your body can’t tell it from a life-or-death situation on a primitive level. As a result, endorphins are sent to help you get through it.

In fact, some mental health experts even recommend exercise as a natural pick-me-up for people prone to depression.

There are two other feel-good chemicals that your body releases when you exercise. Those are dopamine and serotonin.

Exercise, Adrenaline and Cortisol

Exercise doesn’t only cause the release of feel-good chemicals. It also decreases the concentration of stress chemicals in the body.

One of these is adrenaline. Adrenaline is the messenger molecule that makes your brain feel amped up and active. It’s why some people like scary movies and roller coasters. But, if you’re trying to reduce your stress, you’re probably not out looking for adrenaline.

Mild exercise can also help to lower another stress hormone called cortisol. Be mindful, however. More intense exercises can actually make your brain think that you’re in actual danger, which triggers more cortisol.

Tangential Benefits

So far, we’ve been talking about pretty simple relationships. And all of them are true as long as you exercise at all.

However, exercise reduces stress in a number of other ways that depend on how you exercise, where you exercise, and who you exercise with.

How You Exercise

Exercise can reduce stress in a number of less mechanical ways as well. For example, many people – whether they know it or not – treat exercise as a meditative act.

We usually think of meditation as sitting or lying comfortable, clearing your mind, focusing on your breath, etc. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. Exercise is anything that you can do mechanically while your brain focuses on other things. In our busy schedules, our morning run or afternoon trip to the gym might be the only time when we put on headphones and just tune out for a while.

Alternately, make friends at the gym or take friends with you when you go for a run to compound the stress-reducing power of exercise with that of spending time with others. This method doesn’t just reduce more stress – it also improves your workout. If you work out with friends, you’re more likely to stick to your goals. But we’ll get back to goals in a little bit.

Further, if your exercise takes place out outside, that’s an added bonus. Being outdoors in the fresh air and sun helps reduce stress. So, if you can take your exercise outdoors, make sure that you do!

When You Exercise

People with high stress levels often have difficulty falling asleep. More good news about exercise and stress is that exercise helps you fall asleep – no matter what time of day you do it.

Just, try to get your workout in at least an hour before you go to bed. Otherwise, some of the chemicals that your body releases when you work out can actually prevent you from falling asleep quickly.

Of course, the relationship between stress and sleep could be its own article. Often, stress makes sleep difficult. When sleep is difficult, the day has a tendency to get away from a person, producing more stress and a decreased faculty for sleep. This cycle can tragically continue ad infinitum.

Why You Exercise

Exercising just to reduce stress will work to some degree. However, as we’ve discussed above, attaching other metrics to your exercise can help to reduce stress even further. For example, the human mind loves goals.

Accomplishing goals, even seemingly arbitrary ones, gives us a huge sense of reward. Setting goals for yourself related to exercise – getting fit, losing weight, or just exercising for x number of days per week or x number of days in a row – can do wonders for your self-esteem or just your sense of accomplishment.

If you do want to set an arbitrary goal just for the sense of a win, the internet is overflowing with 30-day fitness challenges and 15-day yoga challenges. Just pick one and go.

On the other hand, if you do want to use exercise to reach another objective metric like weight lost or calories burned, this is another area where talking to your doctor can help you pick a healthy and achievable goal for yourself.

Talk to an Expert

A recurring theme in this article is that there are a number of reasons that talking with a healthcare provider can help you get the most mental and physical benefits from your exercise. However, there are also a number of reasons that talking to a mental health professional is also a good early move.

What are You Running from?

Exercise reduces stress in a number of positive ways. However, if you’re looking into exercising because your stress is getting the best of you, you should probably be looking at where your stress is coming from.

If stress is bothering you because of life events like financial worries or a rough patch at work, running or lifting weights can be a good way to get your mind off of things and improve your overall wellness.

However, if your stress is coming from a place of chronic anxiety or other emotional and mental health conditions, trying to fix it with a jog probably won’t be enough. It might make you feel better on the short term, but it won’t solve anything and you’ll just return to that place of anxiety.

If your stress is impacting your health, or if it prevents you from engaging in or enjoying certain activities, you may have an anxiety disorder or a related condition. If this is the case, working with a mental health expert will do you more good than working out – not that you shouldn’t work out as well.

For more information about how you can benefit from talking with a licensed and professional counselor or therapist through a secure, affordable, and flexible online format, visit BetterHelp.

Take it Outside

Your physical and mental health are very closely linked.

No matter where your stress comes from – or even if stress isn’t a problem for you – exercise can make you feel better. In addition to managing stress, it can help you feel better about yourself, get better sleep, and encourage you to spend more time outside or with family and friends.

However, that doesn’t mean that going for a run will be enough to solve all of your problems. While not everyone needs therapy or counseling to manage stress, it may be the best way for you to work out the real problems behind yours.

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