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A post by 

Kara Glasco, MS, RCEP, HFS

Whenever I meet with a client for the first time, I always ask why they want to exercise and why now.  Most say something along the lines of weight loss, reducing their blood pressure, or to even get off some of their medications.  I believe it is important to point out all the other benefits that exercise can do for the body.  Stress relief is a huge part of the benefits that exercise gives the body.  In addition, exercise can aide in sleeping, which in turn reduces stress.  Exercise has been shown to decrease depression and anxiety, which again reduces stress.  Some of you may question how a physical stress, such as exercise, may reduce a person’s emotional and psychological stress?  In this next article, I will review some scholarly and personal examples of how exercise can be the best stress reliever.

All about the brain

Think back to fourth grade health class, there are positive stressors (eustress) and negatives stressors.  Exercise would fall under the positive stress category because the body NEEDS stress.  Positive and negative stress force the body to adapt and be prepared for future stress.  So how does the physical stress of exercise impact the brain and its ability to deal with psychological stress?  When we are stressed our heart rate increases, we begin to sweat, our muscles may tense up and our pupils may dilate.  All of these are the body’s reaction to a fight or flight situation.  Well if we think about exercise, doesn’t our heart rates increase, muscle tension increase, and we sweat?  So, what makes exercise so beneficial with regard to stress?  

When we exercise, the body releases endorphins or as I like to call them "heavenly hormones."  The “runner’s high” is a pretty well-known phenomenon with runners experiencing an almost euphoric feeling during and after their intense runs.  Endorphins are a form of neurotransmitter that not only cause euphoria but stimulate satiety, release sex hormones, and enhance immune responses (1).  All of these factors negate some of the negative effects of stress.  Sounds pretty fantastic to me and one more reason why I love being an exercise physiologist.

Maximize the positive stress

In a study published by Berger and Owen, college students completed the Profile of Mood States and State Anxiety Inventory before and after class on three separate occasions.  Students were enrolled in swimming, body conditioning, hatha yoga, fencing, exercise and lecture-control classes (2).  Most of students were significantly less anxious, tense, depressed, angry, fatigued and confused after class than before on all three occasions (2).  It could be concluded that any exercise can reduce stress and I suggest you select exercises you love to do.  If you are new to exercise, gradually build up your exercise tolerance and always consult your doctor before beginning a new exercise routine. My workout time is meditative, mind numbing, tranquil and a time where I zone out to forget the tensions of the day.  Complex actions such as exercising, yard work and even cooking ease my stress.  Being forced to concentrate on the actual task causes me to forget all my other stresses.  When it comes to stress relief, exercise can be the best medicine for relieving psychological and emotional stress.    


"Exercise." Exercise To Release Stress. Stress Management Society, n.d. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.         

Berger, Bonnie C., and David R. Owen. Stress Reduction and Mood Enhancement in Four Exercise Modes: Swimming, Body Conditioning, Hatha Yoga, and Fencing. 59.2 (1988): 148-159. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 23 June 1987. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.

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