Using exercise to reduce stress

Using exercise to manage stress

Stress is something that affects us all at certain points in our lives and post pandemic there is a lot of change going on. I am seeing many of my clients struggle with stress at the moment.  There are many causes of their stresses as they return to the workplace, see many of their team moving roles and some also realising that their relationship is not working in the way they would like, not to mention worry about the war in Ukraine.

April is stress awareness month and I wanted to explain how stress effect the body and how we can help to combat through exercise. 

Ongoing stress and what it can do to the body

Stress can be good for us, but ongoing high levels of stress can lead to an overexposure of cortisol, adrenalin and other stress hormones, which can disrupt almost all of our body’s processes. Since we all react to stress differently, the impact is likely to vary from person to person, but could affect us in any of the following ways:

  • Higher than normal levels of adrenalin can damage blood vessels leading to high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes.
  • High cortisol levels change processes in your body to make sure that you have enough energy to deal with the stress. It increases your appetite and the storage of unused nutrients as fat, leading to weight gain.
  • Not being able to sleep at night, tension headaches, anxiety, depression, irritability, anger and reproductive system issues, have all been linked to the effects of chronic stress.
  • The immune system is also negatively affected by stress, meaning we are more likely to pick up a horrible bug.

How we can combat some of the effects through exercise

Exercise is seen by the body as a form of stress and that then stimulates the release of cortisol. In general, the more your fitness improves the better the body becomes at dealing with stress, meaning that less cortisol will be released during exercise, but also in response to emotional or psychological stresses. Yay!

That said too much too hard can have the adverse effect we are looking for.  We need to be mindful that certain types of exercise and duration of exercise can stress the body more than we would like.

Prolonged endurance work, HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) or heavy and progressive overload weight training cause less of an increase in cortisol released.  This can mean that we add to the stress in our bodies, so we need to be careful about how much we do these when other life stresses are present.  During highly pressurised times we can change the type of exercise we do, so we can still benefit from movement. 

When we are feeling stressed, here are a few principles to apply

  • Don’t overdo it. Take regular breaks from intense training and listen to your body.
  • Leave intense sessions to later in the day, when cortisol levels are lower.
  • Eat right to fuel your body and make sure you consume carbohydrates and protein after exercise to decrease the cortisol response.

The link between exercise and lower level affects from stress.

There are various scientific papers which have linked the improved health outcomes with exercise.  I’ve summarised the reference paper – The Effects of Stress on Physical Activity and Exercise below:

Those who exercise have a lower incidence of coronary events and cardiovascular disease. There is a strong inverse relation between exercise, obesity and diabetes. Furthermore, those who exercise have fewer incidences of certain types of cancers and more robust immune responses. Interventions designed to increase exercise and movement have resulted in reductions in some physical ailments. There is a similar picture for exercise and mental health outcomes. Those who exercise suffer less from depression, anxiety, fatigue, and cognitive impairments.

Having a plan and a routine can help us be more resilient to stress.

Things to consider when thinking about exercising for your mental wellbeing.

  • Exercising in the morning – Set the day up for success and complete your workout early so that we don’t have to factor it in later in the day.  Plus you get an early boost of endorphins and a feeling of accomplishment.
  • Exercising at lunch time – Stepping away from your to do list halfway through the day ensures that we break the cycle of pressure building. It means your brain can settle for a more productive afternoon, as you’ve had a break from the stresses of the day even if it is just for a short time.
  • Exercising in the evening – It makes you log off at a certain point in that day. With more people working from home and less separation between work and home life, a workout can really help with drawing a line under your working day.

Things to think about when we are choosing which exercise to do.

  • Cardio and weight workouts can improve our performance of movements – through neural pathway growth.  We can see reduced inflammation in the brain and the new activity patterns can help promote feelings of calm and well-being. This sense of well-being improves through exercise because we release endorphins that both energise our spirits and help promote feelings of positivity.
  • Mindful movements that help us slow down and bring focus to our breath.  Yoga and Pilates are a great way to help us keep in the moment and stop racing around.  As we learn from mediation practices, our breath is always there, can help us focus inwards and away from the many things that you are juggling in day-to-day life.

Still not sure where to start?

Here’s 5 minutes of mobility to bring your awareness in to your body and help you connect with any tightness you might be holding.

Whatever form of movement you choose to do be present and enjoy it!   

And of course if I can help you to do that, please get in touch to find out more about our 1:1 training sessions and group bootcamps.

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Sara McDonnell


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