The Minutes

Fitness and wellness insights from experts to help you hit your Paceline Minutes

The Link Between Exercise and Stress

Fitness has long been portrayed as an aesthetic endeavor (“get flat abs fast!”) but by now most people know that working out isn’t just about how you look.

Being physically active can improve overall health. It can also reduce the risk of disease, strengthen bones and muscles, and improve your ability to do everyday activities, according to the CDC. And it can improve brain health, boost your mood, lower symptoms of depression, and reduce the perception of pain. With the Paceline app, regular exercise can even help you unlock rewards when you hit your Streak.

Movement can also be a powerful stress management tool —if you use it correctly. Below, what you need to know about how breaking a sweat can help you handle stress.

How does exercise help with stress?

“For starters, putting yourself into a different environment—a gym, dance class, or nature—can be a major [distraction] from stress,” says Anthony Wall, a certified trainer and ACE Behavior Change Specialist with a master’s in exercise physiology based in San Diego, California. When you’re done working out, he adds, it should trigger an increase in parasympathetic nervous system activity, AKA the “rest and digest” response, which relaxes your body after periods of stress.

Some types of physical activity also release endorphins, chemicals that relieve pain and improve mood, which have long been associated with mitigating stress responses. Plus, as your heart rate starts to rise, blood flow increases throughout your body, including your brain. Chronic stress was linked to reduced blood flow to the brain, especially in areas associated with emotional processing, in 2018 research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. So getting your blood pumping regularly could help you handle stressors more effectively.

What types of exercise help with stress?

Pretty much any type of exercise can act as a coping mechanism for stress, according to Mayo Clinic. For example, aerobic exercise has been shown to reduce levels of the body’s stress hormones, including cortisol. And you don’t have to go all out all the time: Moderate- and vigorous-intensity exercise both decreased anxiety, stress, and depression in a study published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2021. (Exercise is itself a type of physical stress, so if you’re already feeling overwhelmed, then you’ll probably want to stick to a low-intensity workout, as intense exercise could do more harm than good.) 

Another great option for stress relief is exercise that emphasizes breathing, like yoga, Pilates, and tai chi, Wall notes. These modalities can help activate the parasympathetic nervous system and bring your heart rate down. According to a study published in 2017 in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, tai chi was shown to reduce stress levels in healthy individuals. And yoga led to significant reductions in stress, anxiety, and depression in a small study published in the International Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Can you boost the stress-busting benefits of exercise?

If you want to maximize your stress relief while working out, you might try staying in the moment. For example, if you’re lifting weights, Wall suggests focusing on proper form to stay present. Not only can narrowing your focus to whatever it is you’re doing right then and there keep anxiety-inducing thoughts from drifting back into your brain, but it can help you get more out of that weight training exercise. And that’s what will make you fitter and stronger—and more capable of tackling any stressor life throws at you—overall.

The Link Between Exercise and Stress is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as financial advice.