How Does Exercise Reduce Stress?

How Does Exercise Reduce Stress?

You’ve probably been there. For any number of reasons, you’re stressed. So you head off for a bike ride, hit the road for a run, or cue up #mbf.

And somehow, by the end of your workout, you feel more relaxed. You know exercise can help with anxiety.

But how does exercise reduce stress?

We asked a psychologist and a personal trainer to answer; below they explain four specific ways exercise helps reduce stress.

(If you want to know why you stress eat, we have that answer, too.)

1. Exercise Boosts Endorphins

When you work out, your body releases chemicals called endorphins. These neurotransmitters cause the “runner’s high” or other euphoria you may experience when you’ve reached your cooldown.

“These chemicals interact with pain receptors in the brain and reduce your experience of discomfort,” explains Ryan Howes, Ph.D., a psychologist in Pasadena, California.

Some research suggests high-intensity or vigorous exercise is best to trigger an endorphin rush, but more research is necessary.

No matter what workout you choose, as a bonus, “when people feel these endorphins, they are much more motivated to continue working out for the positive feelings associated with it,” Howes says.

Woman relaxing after yoga

2. Reduces the Effects of Stress

Here’s another answer to “how does exercise reduce stress?”

“Stress produces a flood of adrenaline and cortisol,” Howes explains. “If you’re sedentary during this tsunami of hormones, you will feel agitated and jittery. On the other hand, exercise is a way to help you express this extra energy, release the tension from your body, and achieve a sense of accomplishment at the same time.”

Woman stretching her leg outdoors

3. Exercise Is a Moving Meditation

Sitting still isn’t the only way to practice and experience the benefits of meditation. Any kind of physical activity can be a moving meditation.

“Meditation is simply ‘paying attention’ to what’s happening in the here and now, specifically within your body and mind,” says personal trainer Jacque Crockford, CSCS, senior product manager for the American Council on Exercise. “So if you like running and you focus on your breath while running or you pay attention to your foot hitting the ground, you’re meditating!”

Same goes for being “in the zone” while weight lifting, swimming, or, yes, practicing yoga, Howes adds.

If you want to try guided meditation,  a meditation program like Unstress makes meditation easy and accessible to everyone.

Woman sleeping as sun peeks through curtains

4. Exercise Can Help You Sleep Better

It’s no surprise that working out may lead to a better night’s rest. There are a few reasons for this. First, exercise can tire you out physically and mentally, Crockford says.

“Second, exercise has been shown to reduce levels of cortisol and increase levels of ‘feel-good’ serotonin. This combination can help to improve sleep [as long as the exercise occurs well before you plan to go to sleep],” she says.

While everyone’s experience with exercise and sleep differs, better sleep can lead to less stress.

Bottom Line: Sweat to Reduce Stress

Now that we’ve answered, “How does exercise reduce stress?” you may wonder which exercise is best for stress or how much exercise reduces stress.

The fact is, there’s no specific protocol for how long to work out or what activity to do. It’s all personal preference and some trial and error.

In the end, the medium isn’t important, says Howes. “What matters is that you’re doing something to help you work through emotions in a healthy way and feel better about your self-care along the way.”