We often associate working out with “blowing off steam” or helping us clear our heads during particularly stressful times. In fact, the connection seems so logical and so natural that many people never stop to ask: How does exercise reduce stress?
As it turns out, exercise uses several mechanisms to help cut down on stress and help you think more clearly. Here are just five ways a good workout can reduce anxiety.
A spike in happy neurotransmitters – There are many chemicals in your brain that are associated with improved mood, increased focus (which we’ll talk about later) and decreased stress. Exercise increases levels of all of these substances. According to the American Council on Exercise, each workout leaves you with enough of these positive neurotransmitters to keep you relaxed for 90 to 120 minutes after the activity is over. Studies have also shown a measurable decrease in electrical activity in the muscles – a marker of tension – after a solid workout. In fact, some research has even shown regular exercise to be as effective as pharmaceuticals in the treatment of some cases of depression.
Increased confidence – As you reach your goals, you will come to understand exactly what you’re capable of doing. Which is incredibly empowering. And, very often, stress and anxiety is directly linked with feelings of powerlessness and low self-esteem. Studies have shown that regular exercise has the potential to improve confidence, self-esteem and feeling of self-efficacy.
Reduction of stress hormones – While increasing levels of positive chemicals in the brain, exercise can also reduce the concentration of certain hormones associated with stress – namely, adrenaline and cortisol. While these hormones have their purpose and can actually be highly beneficial, when levels are chronically high many seemingly unrelated health problems can pop up including obesity, sleeplessness, diabetes and heart disease.
Decreased pain and inflammation – Along with reducing feelings of stress and improving mood, the neurotransmitters associated with exercise can also act as natural pain-killers. These chemicals also reduce your body’s inflammation response which can go much deeper than the perceived swelling and soreness you may immediately think of. When it gets out of hand, inflammation can cause chronic pain, sleeplessness, a decrease in mobility and even a reduction in mobility. Inflammation can even lead to a decrease in cognitive function. Decreasing inflammation, then, helps you ward off any stress that you may be under right now and also reduces your risk of having to deal with complications later.
Increased focus – As you exercise, you are building your coordination and your ability to control and work with your body. This requires focus, and, very often, exercise takes on a degrees of mindfulness – allowing you to set aside whatever your stressor is and zone in on your activity. Learning how to do this will allow you to not just reduce stress while you are at the gym but also to control it in your everyday life. Remember, too, the reducing chronic stress is a key to avoiding many health complications.