Have you ever noticed that your stress and anxiety nearly vanish after you run, after you play basketball, or after you engage in your favorite exercise activity?
Indeed, physical activity is a useful and effective way to reduce stress levels in our lives!
In this post, we review well-known scientific attempts to define what stress actually means. What information is important to know about the negative effects of psychological stress on our health?
Next, we zoom in on physical activity – especially on regular exercise – which is a remarkably effective anti-stress remedy. How does physical activity help us fight against stress-related negative health effects?
Last, we focus on the effects of physical activity specifically in the brain. Can we really ‘exercise-away’ our stress and what positive brain-signaling changes are caused by regular exercise?
Part 1: Living with Stress & Our Health
It seems that stress is simply part of being human. Life is biologically and socially set-up to include stressful events for everyone.
Yet, there is never any good reason to give in to stress. Not caring simply results in forgetting to focus on your health and causes additional unnecessary suffering.
Stress is something we all must deal with effectively if we stand a chance at living a happy and fulfilled life.
1.1 What is Stress?
One scientific theory defines stress as a process of balancing-out demands between an individual person and the person’s environment. Essentially, stress occurs when we make a judgment that the demands coming from our environment are greater than our ability to meet those demands [R1].
This theory is grounded in each person’s personal assessment of the degree to which we perceive each situation to be stressful (or not stressful) to us. We only perceive stress when a challenge or an event is both threatening and we are not able to find effective ways to cope with the present problems [R1].
Depending on the type of scientific research, stress also has other important definitions.
Another useful way to define stress is by analyzing the body mechanisms that are compromised when our bodies react to stress.
During a stressful state, the body adapts and uses physiological, biochemical, and cognitive-behavioral responses towards regaining homeostasis [R2].
1.2 Chronic Stress & Health Conditions
When people are exposed to forms of stress that persist over time, the physiological (body) and psychological (mind) reactions that accompany stress – also continue to occur over time.
Chronic stress causes a misbalance in how our body functions. As such, long-term stress is associated with a number of health conditions:
Body Health Conditions:
Mental Health Conditions:
1.3 Stress & Unhealthy Diet Choices
How effectively we deal with stress also influences our nutrition.
The 2013 Stress in America survey showed that 30% of respondents reported skipping a meal when experiencing stress [R11]. In addition, 41% of the people of those who skipped meals reporting that they did so at least once per week [R11].
On the other hand, in the same study researchers showed that 30% of adults engaged in overeating and eating, also at least once per week [R11].
Overall, there is a relationship between stress and eating an unhealthy diet. Some people lose their appetite and eat less than their body energetically requires, while other overeat and shift towards unhealthy foods.
It is also worth knowing that when people experience stress, people tend to choose less healthy types of foods [R12]. Choices usually include more energy-dense foods, meaning foods that contain increased sugar and/or fat [R13].
1.4 Stress & Alcohol, Substance Use
Stress is also strongly associated with addictive behavior among individuals. Researchers consider stress among the most important factors contributing to individuals becoming addicted to alcohol [R14] or to other harmful substances [R15].
For people who have successfully quit a substance addiction (such as quit drinking alcohol), unfortunately, excessive stress also drives relapse back into addiction [R16].
Overall, stress has a range of negative effects on our physical and mental health. In the next part, we discuss how physical activity is useful for managing stress.
Part 2: Manage Stress with Physical Activity
Physical activity, especially aerobic and cardio exercise, offers a wide range of positive health benefits.
Because stress plays such important negative roles in our health, in this part we focus on the proven benefits of exercise – towards effectively managing stress in our lives.
2.1 Exercise Improves Stress Resilience
‘Laboratory stressors’ exist as ethical ways to cause small stress reactions in research participants as part of scientific protocols for researching stress. Commonly used stressors in scientific research include asking participants to perform mental arithmetic, to speak publicly, or more complex cognitive tasks.
Multiple studies have determined that physical activity helps individuals gain greater resilience to stress. Both overall fitness and individual levels of exercise are factors that are associated with greater resilience to ‘laboratory’ stressors [R17].
Essentially, people who exercise are more resilient to stress and are therefore less susceptible to the negative effects of stress.
2.2 Exercise Reduces Anxiety & Panic
Researchers have also shown that physical activity also likely reduces anxiousness in times of stress. This effect has been determined by pooling together self-reported results by individual participants in research studies.
For example, compared with male participants who do not regularly exercise, elite male athletes show less anxiety in response to public speaking tasks (the psychological stressor used in this research study) [R18].
Physical activity weakens the presence of anxiety during stressful times that occur in response to negative emotional stimuli specifically. In one research study focused on emotional stress responses, participants who regularly exercised responded with less anxiety to different images – ranging from arousing pleasant to emotionally neutral to unpleasant images [R19].
In addition, evidence suggests that, over time, physical activity lowers the frequency and duration of panic symptoms in individuals. Both aerobic activity [R20] and strength training [R21] are effective methods for reducing panic response and panic sympthoms.
This evidence further supports the notion that physical activity helps us better manage daily anxieties and panic – towards efficient management of stress in our lives.
2.3 Exercise, Stress & Diet Explained
In addition to other positive benefits, physical activity is also associated with developing healthy eating behaviors.
Among adults and adolescents, regular exercise influences the total amount of food intake and drives improved nutrition choices [R22].
Comparable healthy patterns are observed in children too. Because physical activity naturally increases the energy children burn through over time [R25], exercise is associated with lower risk for developing obesity during childhood.
Even small amounts of physical activity might be sufficient for positive effects in terms of making better nutrition choices. In fact, researchers have determined that 15min brisk-walking (performed before experiencing a stressor) reduces cravings for sugary snacks compared to a no physical activity control group of overweight women and men [R26].
2.4 Exercise, Stress & Addiction Explained
Physical activity is also an effective means against additive behavior that is driven by chronic stress. In addition to numerous other health benefits of physical activity, researchers have suggested that exercise is beneficial for preventing substance use disorder [R27].
Exercise is an attractive anti-addiction intervention because it is a super safe alternative in comparison to pharmacotherapy. Unlike pills and synthetic drug chemicals, exercise can be used in both adult and adolescent populations [R28].
Overall, it is a great idea to exercise more towards lowering stress and fighting back against addictive behavior in the long run.
Part 3: Physical Activity & Brain Health
Stress is a continuous psychological (mind-based) process. In other words, we perceive stress in our heads and we are able to deal with stress by putting our brains to use.
Your brain is the organ that decides whether it interprets an experience as pleasant or stressful. In turn, the resulting processes that occur in your brain can be healthy or damaging to your health [R29].
In this part, we focus on how physical activity drives healthy shifts in brain function.
3.1 The Brain Is ‘Plastic’ & Always Changing
The brain is a plastic and changing organ and, as such, the brain can be altered using numerous interventions [R30]. The good news is that our brains respond to interventions that are designed to change brain function towards healthier behavior in individuals.
Physical activity regulates how crucial brain-signaling chemicals are synthesized, used up, and recycled in the brain. Such signaling molecules form complex and interrelated signaling pathways in our brains [R31].
Physical activity optimizes brain signaling involving the following brain signals (known as neurotransmitters):
Combined, by stirring changes in how these neurotransmitters functions, physical activity has a profound effect on improving brain signaling towards more optimal health.
3.2 Exercise and Meditation Have Similar Brain Effects
Physical activity and meditation are very different interventions that are practiced in different ways.
However, when it comes to reducing stress and its negative effects on health, physical activity and meditation share similar biological pathways.
In terms of brain health, both of these interventions result in similar outcomes [R36]. This likely works as a two-way relationship between mindfulness and exercise – meaning that:
- Exercise likely increases mindfulness levels in individuals [R36]
- Mindfulness likely contributes to improved effects of exercise training [R37]
In support of this concept, one research study found that increases in mindfulness explain positive effects of meditation and exercise in patients dealing with acute respiratory illness [R38].
3.3 Exercise for Depression or Bipolar Disorder
Researchers have previously determined that people who exercise regularly have risk for developing stress-related mental health conditions, compared to peers who lead sedentary lifestyles [R39].
Prolonged stress is associated with the start of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) – commonly known as clinical depression, as well as with the onset of Bipolar Disorder – another mental health condition.
3.4 Positive Emotions Balance-Out Stress
Last, it is important to remember that exercise alone should not be understood as a magical 100% effective remedy against excessive stress. We must focus on personal growth by continuously learning how to deal with our emotions and to make the most out of our emotional life too.
The more positive emotions people experience in life, the greater their ability to recognize and make use of possible strategies for coping with stress. By experiencing positive emotions in our lives, we have the ability to grow our arsenal of strategies that come to our mind during stressful times [R42].
When we grow in this way, we enhance our resilience against stressors that occur in the present or might occur in the future [R43]. Positive emotions are actually associated with resilience against stressors – situations in life when we feel stress is strongly present in our life [R44].
I hope you enjoyed learnging the benefits of exercise in terms of managing stress and how regular physical activity is imporntant for living a well-balances and emotionally-fulfilling life.