With work piling up, chores to finish at home, and hardly any time for leisure, stress can often feel inescapable. Having time to oneself in front of the TV can feel like the best solution, with the bed being one’s only refuge. However, there is one all-natural way to feel better, but not everyone likes to hear it: try getting some exercise.

Stress is a universal problem. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America says that seven out of ten US adults experience stress or anxiety daily, often interfering with their lives. According to the Mental Health Foundation’s 2018 study, 74% of respondents in the UK had felt so stressed in the past year, they had been overwhelmed or unable to cope. One affordable and accessible solution to stress is physical activity. Here’s exactly how it helps.

Endorphins and endocannabinoids from physical stress

It’s hard to believe that a form of physical stress can lead to a relief of mental stress, but that’s exactly what happens when you exercise. The main mental benefit that exercise offers is the release of endorphins. Endorphins, also known as the brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters, are credited with causing the feelings associated with “runner’s high,” making those who experience it crave it again and again. 

A 2015 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America also found that endocannabinoids, a natural version of the THC or tetrahydrocannabinol identified in cannabis, may play a role just as important as endorphins in the experience of runner’s high. According to the researchers, endocannabinoids may have helped ancestors stay focused and alert while hunting for food. It is these brain chemicals that remain active today as we exercise.

Prolonged exercise is to thank for the release of endorphins and endocannabinoids. The constant physical stress put on the body triggers the spread of these brain chemicals, allowing for feelings of happiness, gratitude, and motivation.

Repetitive motions 

Stress has a tendency to grow until it becomes overwhelming. The repetitive motions that you make when you exercise can call your attention to your own body. Exercise requires you to be fully present and focused on what is happening in the now, with the weights you’re carrying or the treadmill you’re running on. This need to concentrate on your body and every movement you make takes pressure away from your mind, giving you a sense of calm. Many refer to this experience as meditation in movement.

According to Harvard Health Publishing of Harvard Medical School, the meditative movement itself is often prescribed for the alleviation of depressive symptoms. Meditative movement occurs when you focus on the sensations your body is feeling, from your breaths to your heartbeat. This would also allow you to re-evaluate your position amid your environment and surroundings. Meditative movement is most present in practices such as yoga and tai chi.

Other health benefits

While stress is rooted in emotion, it often translates to physical symptoms. If contained to the mind, stress can cause irritability, worry, insomnia, anger, hostility, restlessness, and feelings of dread. Physical symptoms of stress, on the other hand, include headaches, neck pain, back pain, tense muscles, a dry mouth, and thirst. One’s skin could become pale, throat could feel blocked, or stomach could act up in a way that either feels like butterflies or diarrhea. The worst symptoms include chest tightness, problems breathing, excessive coughing, hyperventilation, and fainting. The point is that stress is a real thing, and is by no means a figment of the imagination. The physical symptoms could become so hard to manage, they only worsen the mental symptoms one feels.

It makes sense then to physically exercise in order to hopefully affect the mind, breaking the cycle of stress adding to the stress. Exercise strengthens the body’s immunity, lowers blood pressure, strengthens bones and muscles, improves blood circulation, and boosts levels of good cholesterol in the blood. It also contributes to weight loss, improves self-image, helps with sleep problems, and boosts energy. Many have said that regularly exercising improved their mood, gradually making them feel better over time. 

Exercising to get rid of stress

Generally, people are advised to get at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity each week. The American Heart Association suggests doing this by holding five 30-minute workout sessions throughout the week. According to the health guidance website Healthline, any type of exercise would help with stress.

Any moderate aerobic exercise like walking, jogging, biking, dancing, or swimming would work. High-energy activities like aerobic exercises cause your heart rate to rise, releasing the endorphins your mind needs. Before doing these exercises, be sure to consult your doctor for their go-ahead.

If you can’t do moderate or high-intensity exercises, go for practices like yoga, a mind-body exercise that’ll have you combine movements and poses with deep breathing. The mind and body are more connected than one might think. Yoga, tai chi, and pilates are great self-paced exercises that focus on balance, strength, and calming the mind. All three have been credited with stress relief.

Play a game of tennis if you’d rather do something fun with friends. If you absolutely don’t have the time to exercise, make the right choices in your daily life to contribute to your physical activity. For instance, if you’re faced with the choice of taking the elevator or the stairs, remember that even a little bit of constant physical activity could give you the emotional high you need.

Always settle on an exercise or activity that you actually like doing. Having to accomplish an exercise that you hate every morning would only add to the stress that you already feel. Remember that exercising is supposed to make you feel good. If none of the previously mentioned exercises appeal to you, find one that you’ll enjoy.

Of course, you don’t have to exercise alone if you don’t want to. Ask a friend or family member to join you; their presence would not only make your workouts more fun but provide you with the support you need to keep going.

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