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These days, many people struggle to unplug. Inflation, global warming and gun violence are on the rise. Bullies on social media are on the rise. The 24/7 news cycle is constantly churning out heartbreaking news, and people are often faced with difficult personal or professional situations.
Nearly half of Americans say they have experienced stress within the past day, according to a Gallup Poll Survey since last October, a finding that is consistent for most of 2022. Personal finances and current and political events are major sources of stress for one-third or more of adults, a survey from on CNN in partnership with the Kaiser Family Foundation found in October.
Stress isn’t inherently bad, says Richard Scrivener, a personal trainer and product development manager at London’s Trainfitness, an education technology company. Stressing your muscles through weight training, for example, leads to beneficial changes. In addition, short-term stress in healthy people is usually not a risk. “But if stress is persistent, especially in older or unhealthy individuals, the long-term effects of the stress response can lead to significant health issues,” Scrivener said.
Stress occurs when you’re faced with a new, unpredictable or threatening situation, and you don’t know if you’ll be able to handle it successfully, says clinical psychologist Dr. Karmel Choi, an assistant professor at the Center for Precision Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
When you are physically or emotionally stressed, your body goes into fight-or-flight mode. Cortisol rushes into your system, signaling your body to release glucose. Glucose, in turn, provides energy to your muscles so you are better prepared to fight a threat or flee. During this cortisol rush, your heart rate may increase, your breathing may become rapid, and you may feel dizzy or nauseous.
If you really have to fight or run away from a predator, your cortisol levels will drop again once the fight is over. When you’re constantly stressed, however, those levels stay high.
Staying in an elevated state is not good because high cortisol levels can worsen health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and chronic gastrointestinal problems, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Stress can also cause or contribute to anxiety, irritability, poor sleep, substance abuse, chronic distrust or worry, and more.
Fortunately, there are many ways to combat stress. Maintain a daily routine, get enough sleep, eat healthy foods, and limit your time following the news or engaging in social media, recommends World Health Organization. It also helps to stay connected with others and use calming practices like meditation and deep breathing. However, one of the most successful tools is physical activity.
“Exercise is remarkably effective for managing psychological stress,” Choi said. “Exercise doesn’t eliminate what causes stress, but it can boost mood, reduce tension and improve sleep – all of which are affected by stress – and ultimately it can support people who approach their challenges in a more balanced way.”
Many studies confirm the positive effect of exercise on stress. Physical activity, and especially exercise, significantly reduced anxiety symptoms in a study published in Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, for example. Similarly, a Study Frontiers in Psychology of university students were found to regularly engage in low- to moderate-intensity exercise aerobic exercises for six weeks helped alleviate their symptoms of depression and perceived stress.
The reason exercise is so effective at relieving stress is quite simple. Exercise causes your body to produce more endorphins, which are neurotransmitters that boost your mood. Movement also combats elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol while improving blood flow.
Jessica Honig, a clinical social worker in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, says exercise empowers her clients because they realize that, through movement, they hold the key to reset and reduce their stress. “It’s also one of the best ways to pause — to break or re-energize from a spinning, unproductive mind,” he says.
What types of exercise are best? While studies show aerobic exercise, such as swimming, running, dancing and boxing, may be the most effective at getting mood-boosting endorphins flowing through your body, gentler forms of physical activity also works. Think yoga, strength training and walking. In addition, sometimes less is more.
“What we see from the data,” Choi said, “is that you really have to move less than the recommended guidelines to see positive effect on mood.”
Because stress loads can change weekly or even daily, Scrivener says it can be helpful to modify your exercise based on your mood. Feeling an energetic 8 on a scale of 1 to 10? Then you run. Barely hit a 3? Choose something subtle. “This could be a 15-minute stretch followed by a light cycle for 15 minutes, or a 30-minute swim followed by a sauna session,” he says.
Because social interaction is a strong protective factor for positive mental health, Choi encourages exercising with others. Studies have also shown being out in nature boosts your mood, so exercising outside with friends can provide even more benefits.
Scientists continue to study the relationship between stress and physical activity. A small study recently published found that combining mindfulness and physical activity can improve sleep and help regulate emotions more than either alone, Choi said. He also cautioned that people need to be careful not to go overboard with exercise or rely solely on it to cope with challenges. Doing so can backfire and create more stress.
It’s also important to remember that people are committed to physical release of stress, regardless of their age, said Honig, the social worker. “We see in children the permission to throw their body on pillows to release strong emotions,” he said. “We don’t overcome the need to physically release stress. We just lose outlets and social normalization of it.”
Melanie Radzicki McManus is a freelance writer specializing in hiking, travel and fitness.