Exercise helps relieve stress. That’s a fairly common sense belief these days, but it is also one backed up by a lot of careful scientific research.
Exercise causes the brain to produce a cocktail of helpful biochemicals that help reduce stress. Runners, for example, are familiar with that ‘endorphin high’ that comes from marathon workouts. That’s the result of the brain releasing an opiate-like substance that the body produces naturally to reduce pain. In extreme cases it leads to a sense of euphoria.
Along with endorphins there are other neuro-transmitters produced – serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine – that also have beneficial effects as mood elevators. The effects of those is shown most clearly when they exist at too low levels – depression, anxiety and sometimes increased aggression.
Exercise helps reduce stress not only by the biochemicals it produces, but by reducing others produced by stress. When a person experiences stress the sympathetic nervous system produces cortisol and hormones that – if left unaltered in the blood stream – produce harmful effects on blood vessels. They can produce scaring, which can lead to narrowing of the arteries.
Exercise helps solve that problem in two ways. A good workout will actually use up those compounds, breaking them down into products that are harmless and get passed out in urine. It helps in a second way by making blood vessels stronger and more elastic, which helps them resist the effects of any stress-produced chemicals that don’t get used up.
Stress often produces excessively tense muscles, particularly in the neck, shoulders and calves. Exercise can help loosen those up, both as part of a general warm-up period and during the main workout. At the same time, those muscles are getting strengthened and infused with fresh, highly oxygenated blood. Lowering ‘bad’ cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood helps improve the circulatory system, too. A beneficial effect all the way around.
There are psychological benefits from a regular exercise routine that help eliminate stress, as well. Focusing on the routine at hand takes away the conscious focus from the stress initiators. It’s difficult to concentrate on that unreasonable boss and his unfair actions that morning when you’re working your way around the weight stations.
Those effects also help give the mind a chance to bring about homeostasis. That’s a feedback mechanism within the body that brings it back to a state of equilibrium from any extreme. A strenuous workout takes the mind off problems, giving that system time to function without continuing to overload it.
Other psychological benefits follow from a regular workout. Improving overall health and fitness helps produce self-confidence. When you look good, you often feel good. Beyond that, it helps you realize that you are exerting effort to improve your mind and body. That serves to overcome the feelings of helplessness and resultant passivity that so often accompany stress.
Sometimes, just getting out of the house or away from work for a vigorous walk can do wonders. But a good workout of at least half an hour’s duration three to five times per week is ideal. You’ll find stress levels will be lowered and your overall mood will elevate very quickly.