Total Access Medical - Direct Primary Care Blog

Can Exercise Reduce Stress?

Posted by Total Access Medical on Mar 21, 2024

imagePhysical activity can relieve stress and may also improve anxiety and depression symptoms. Experts think it does this by both promoting resilience and giving a person a break from their stress, boosting their mood.

Although researchers know exercise can improve stress, anxiety, and depression symptoms, they do not fully understand why. It is unclear exactly how exercise boosts mood and promotes calmness, but they have theories about its effects.

Some evidence indicates that exercise increases resilience, making a person more equipped to deal with challenging situations.

Exercise recommendations for stress reduction are the same as those for promoting general health: 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week. Brisk walking, jogging, and bicycling are examples of this type of exercise.

Researchers are studying the mechanisms connecting exercise and stress. There are two main theories:

Increases emotional resilience to stress

One explanation says that exercise may increase emotional resilience to stress.

In a 2014 study, researchers looked at 111 participants and compared the effects of a stressful task with those of a non-stressful task. They also analyzed differences between people who exercised regularly and people who were sedentary.

The results indicated that stress caused a smaller decline in positive mood among regular exercisers. The sedentary individuals experienced a larger decline in mood. This suggests that regular exercise may increase resilience, helping people cope with difficult situations.

However, it is important to note that the study did not show a direct causal link between stress levels and exercise. Other factors are likely at play — for example, a person with a chronic health condition that forces them to be sedentary may have higher stress levels overall.

Despite this, lower stress levels may mean a person is less likely to experience certain health problems. Older research from 2013 notes that 75–90% of visits to a primary care doctor are for stress-related conditions, such as:

  • cardiovascular disease
  • obesity
  • diabetes
  • sleep problems
  • headaches
  • immune system suppression
  • neck and back pain

Another theory is called the “time-out” hypothesis

This posits that exercise reduces stress by providing a break from it. For example, a person may lower their stress levels at work by going for a brisk walk on their lunch break.

Researchers in an older 1998 study tested the time-out hypothesis in a small group of females with anxiety and found that exercising caused lower anxiety levels.

A 2021 study of high school students had similar findings. Researchers found that a 10-minute exercise break during a stressful exam week resulted in lower stress levels and improved cognitive function.

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