How to reduce stress through exercise

If you're looking to reduce stress in your life, experts say you should ease into a regular fitness routine.

How to reduce stress through exercise

Subscribe to CNN's Fitness, But Better Newsletter. This seven-part guide, supported by experts, will help you to ease into a healthier routine.


Many people today find it difficult to disconnect from the internet. Gun violence, inflation and global warming are all on the rise. Bullies are common on social media. People are often faced with difficult professional or personal situations and the 24/7 news cycle is constantly filled with distressing stories.

A Gallup poll conducted in October last year found that about half of Americans had experienced stress during the previous day. This finding was constant throughout 2022. A survey conducted by CNN and the Kaiser Family Foundation in October found that personal finances, current events and political issues were among the top sources of stress in adults.

Richard Scrivener is a personal trainer at London's Trainfitness and a product manager for the company's education technology. He said that stress wasn't necessarily bad. Weight training can lead to positive changes in your body. Short-term stress is not a health hazard for healthy people. Scrivener stated that if stress continues, particularly in the elderly or unhealthy, it can lead to serious health problems.

Stress can make you sick

Stress is when you are faced with a new situation that's unpredictable or threatening and don't have a clue if you can handle it, according to Dr. Karmelchoi, assistant professor at the Center for Precision Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, and Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston.

When you are physically or emotionally stressed, the body goes into a fight-or-flight response. Cortisol floods your system and signals your body to release sugar. The glucose, in turn provides energy to the muscles, so that you can fight off an attack or run away. You may feel dizzy, nauseated, or have rapid breathing during this cortisol surge.

Once the fight or flight was over, your cortisol level would return to normal. However, when you are chronically stressed these levels remain elevated.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, staying in this state of stress is not good for your health. High levels of cortisol may worsen conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and chronic gastrointestinal issues. Stress can cause or contribute anxiety, irritability and poor sleep. It may also lead to substance abuse or chronic worry.

Stress relief

There are several ways to reduce stress. World Health Organization recommends that you keep a routine, eat healthily, sleep enough, and spend less time on social media or watching the news. Staying connected to others, and using calming techniques such as deep breathing and meditation can also help. Physical activity is one of the best tools.

Choi stated that exercise is an effective way to manage psychological stress. Exercise doesn't eliminate the cause of stress but it can improve mood, reduce tension, and sleep, all which are affected by stress.

Numerous studies support the positive effects of exercise on stress. In a study published in Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology for instance, physical activity and exercise significantly reduced anxiety symptoms. In a study published in Frontiers in Psychology, university students were found to benefit from regular aerobic exercise of low-to-moderate intensity for six weeks.

Move to release feel-good chemical

Exercise is a great way to reduce stress. Exercise increases the production of endorphins in your body, which is a neurotransmitter that improves your mood. Exercise also helps to reduce elevated levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. It also improves blood flow.

Jessica Honig is a clinical social work in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. She said that exercise empowers her client because they understand they can reset their stress through movement. She said that exercise is a great way to stop and pause, to interrupt or revive energy in a spiraling unproductive mindset.

What are the best types of exercise? Studies show that aerobic exercises, like swimming, running and dancing, are the best for boosting your mood. However, other gentler physical activities can also be effective. Consider yoga, strength-training and walking. Sometimes, less is more.

Choi stated that the data showed you need to move less to achieve positive mood effects.

Scrivener says that since stress levels can change daily or weekly, it is helpful to adjust your exercise according to your mood. Do you feel a cheerful 8 on a 1-10 scale? Go for a run. You barely hit a 3? Opt for something easy. He suggested a gentle workout, such as a 15 minute stretch, followed by 15 minutes of light cycling, or 30 minutes of swimming followed by 15 minutes in the sauna.

Exercise as a social activity

Choi recommends that you exercise with other people, as social interaction is a powerful factor in promoting positive mental health. Being in nature can also boost your mood. Exercising outside with friends could provide additional benefits.

Scientists are continuing to investigate the relationship between physical activity and stress. Choi stated that a small study recently published found that combining physical activity and mindfulness can improve sleep, and regulate emotions better than either one alone. She warned people not to overdo exercise or to rely solely on it to cope with challenges. This can create stress and backfire.

Honig, a social worker, emphasized that it's important to keep in mind that people are designed to release their stress through physical activity, regardless of age. She said that children are allowed to throw themselves into pillows in order to release their intense emotions. We do not grow out of the need to release stress physically. We simply lose the outlets, and social normalization.