Everyone reaches points in their life when they feel stressed out, anxious, or worried about current and future events. But how do we deal with them? I’ve tried many different “destressing” tactics. Everything from taking a nap, to spending a night out at the bar with my buddies. While the things I tried helped in the moment, nothing had the long-term benefit that I felt from exercise. If you’re anything like me, then you’re wondering why this is. Lucky for you, I enjoy doing a bit of research on this stuff.
We know that regular physical activity has a range of health benefits. Everything from our cardiovascular system, to our digestion relies on staying active to remain healthy. But, previously unknown to me, our stress response systems need us to take part in regular activity as well! Anxiety and stress are controlled, partly by the central nervous system, and partly by the endocrine system. When you’re exposed to something that stresses you out, the hypothalamus in the brain gets going and signals the adrenal glands to release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol . When the situation that the brain is detecting goes away, this response should disappear.
Now, in our modern society, it’s not just once in a while that we find ourselves exposed to something that triggers a response. If you find it easy to manage the stressors in your life, then well done! If you don’t, this next bit is for you.
Whether you’re running late for work, freaking out about an upcoming date, or maybe cutting it close for an upcoming rent payment. These are all things that add anxiety to our lives. If you don’t have a way of mitigating the effects of the stressors you’re faced with, they can lead to several negative health effects.
So, how can we avoid letting the stress build up to the point where we’re getting beaten down? Well, one great way is to maintain a regular active lifestyle. Before you say “I don’t have time, I have to get to the things that are stressing me out first!” and, if you do get to those things, that’s great! But, after exercise you are way more productive.
Why is this? When you exercise, it drives blood flow to the brain, which increases alertness. There’s also the added benefit of an increase in dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine which all help to elevate your mood. Exercise even increases your cognitive ability and problem-solving functions . All of these together end up making it much easier to tackle any problem or stressor that is bringing you down. Wow, those are some pretty awesome benefits! Well, what’s more amazing than just the benefits, is the fact that it only takes 5 minutes of activity to see these results (which increase further as your bout of activity continues). So, if you’re feeling stressed out, get out there and go for a quick jog, get a few rounds of walking up some stairs, or maybe do few sets of squats and push ups wherever you are. It only takes a minimum of 5 minutes!
Now, what if you’re someone who’s developed an anxiety-related disorder? Well, for anxiety and panic disorders, there are a range of benefits that stem from different levels of activity. When a person with these disorders engages in vigorous physical activity it can be considered to fall under the title of exposure therapy. Exposure therapy is a type of treatment where a person is repeatedly exposed to a trigger with the knowledge that this will lessen the effects of said trigger over time. With vigorous activity the heart rate is elevated, which can lead to certain stress responses e.g. Panic/anxiety attacks; evidence suggests that over time these stress responses will decrease in frequency and severity. Of course, it’s best to speak to a healthcare professional, and get their opinion on your specific situation. When engaging in any level of activity endorphins are produced, which help with reduced perception of pain, increases in sleep quality and ability, and reduced feelings of stress. These are all shown to be contributors in reducing the negative effects of panic/anxiety disorders. Although most people experience benefits from physical activity, researchers agree that it may not be 100% mentally beneficial to those with anxiety and panic disorders; like all forms of therapy the results may vary. With this in mind, there is no dispute over the physical benefits of leading an active lifestyle and therapists suggest being active if at all possible.
If you’re just starting to implement your healthy active lifestyle, it’s good to start out easy. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) states that there are notable differences in stress levels and demeanor after as little as 5 minutes. They also express that a good initial objective for regular exercise should be 3-4 sessions per week ranging between 20-30 minutes in duration of moderate aerobic physical activity . This is a good start, but eventually you want to aim towards hitting at least one 30-minute session a day of moderate to vigorous exercise to get the most psychological benefit. Good luck, and hopefully you’ll soon begin to enjoy an active lifestyle as much as I do!
1. Exercise for Stress and Anxiety
2. Study: Physical Activity and Anxiety: A Perspective from the World Health Survey
Stubbs B et al, 2017, Journal of Affective Disorders
3. Study: Effects of Exercise and Physical Activity on Anxiety
Elizabeth Anderson, Geetha Shivakumar, 2013, Frontiers in Psychiatry
4. Effects of Stress on the Body
5. Exercise Increases Productivity