Stress is an inevitable issue for practically everyone, as the obstacles of our daily schedules and volume of responsibilities can be overwhelming. The anxiety that builds from constantly juggling job responsibilities, paying bills, handling family duties, and maintaining an apartment or house, is a problem for many. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, seven out of 10 adults in the United States report experiencing stress or anxiety on a daily basis, and many add that it interferes with their lives.
When stress stems from an overburden of responsibilities, adding in a daily workout may seem to be counterintuitive. But, research has shown that regular exercise is highly effective at reducing stress. In fact, as little much as five minutes of aerobic exercise has shown to produce anti-anxiety effects. Exercise causes the central nervous system to release morphine-like chemicals that provide anti-stress effects. When done consistently, exercise can boost self-esteem, elevate and stabilize mood, and improve sleep, thereby helping to reduce stress levels.
Most types of exercise are effective for lowering stress, but activities that involve moving large muscle groups in a rhythmic, repetitive fashion, like walking, running, biking, or cycling on an elliptical machine have been shown to be best. A recent poll by the Anxiety and Depression Association of American found that about 14 percent of people use regular exercise to help cope with stress. Within that same poll, 29 percent preferred walking, while 20 percent opted for running and 11 percent turned to yoga.
If you haven't been exercising, understand that it'll be physically difficult at first. It will likely feel more like work in the beginning, but as you remain consistent and get in shape, you'll get more comfortable and your workouts will become therapeutic. Begin by walking 15 minutes every day and gradually increase your workout duration every week.
Chemical Changes: Exercise Boosts Endorphins and Reduces Stress Hormones
Exercise causes the brain's hypothalamus and pituitary gland to produce neurochemicals called endorphins, which are known for being natural painkillers and mood elevators. They work similar to the drug morphine by activating opioid receptors in the brain, which in turn minimize discomfort and reduce stress. These euphoria-producing, feel-good neurotransmitters are responsible for the "runner's high" sensation, or the feelings of relaxation and optimism that follow workouts.
Exercise also reduces levels of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. When you're stressed and stew on your problems, the body releases stress hormones continuously. Over time, this can lead to serious health issues. Chronic elevated levels of cortisol suppresses the immune system, increases both blood pressure and sugar levels, and contributes to obesity, leading to even more health risks. Regular exercise helps keep these stress hormone levels in check.
Feeling Empowered: Exercise Improves Self Esteem and Makes You More Mentally Tough
When you're consistent with your cardio and strength workouts, you'll notice significant positive changes occurring in your body. You'll lose body fat, reduce the size of your waistline, become physically stronger and boost your stamina. As a result, your self-image will improve and you'll feel better about your appearance and physical capabilities.
Exercise also slows the aging process, increases energy, and prolongs life. It lowers blood pressure, improves cholesterol, reduces blood sugar, and reduces the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, obesity, and osteoporosis. You'll in turn feel better about your health and your life's outlook.
Being consistent with your workouts and noticing these health and physical changes will give you a sense of mastery and control. The discipline you develop by following a regular routine will transfer to other responsibilities and goals in life and you'll begin to believe you can achieve other important goals.
A Sense of Calm: Exercise Elevates and Stabilizes Mood
Exercise has been shown to help shed the tensions that come from daily life. When you're working out, your mind gets to take a short break from thinking about responsibilities or worrying about current issues. When you're working out, you give yourself a short period of solitude. For that short amount of time, you don't have to worry about your job, your significant other, or your kids.
Your body may be busy working, but your mind gets to be distracted and think creatively. It's common for people to report that it was during a workout when they're alone and their mind is free to think that they were able to find solutions to their problems. You will often leave workouts with a clear mind and a sense of calm.
Break the No Sleep-Stress Cycle: Exercise Helps You Sleep Better
Elevated stress levels often interrupt healthy sleep. Insomnia in turn further increases stress and on and on the cycle goes. However, this dangerous cycle can be broken with regular exercise. Studies have shown that exercise significantly improves quality of sleep. Because exercise decreases stress and anxiety, thereby reducing arousal, it promotes quality of sleep and reduces the occurrence of sleep disruptions, thereby helping to break the "stress-no sleep-further stress" cycle.
Exercising regularly can also help you feel like you have a greater command of your life. Studies have shown that regular exercise is highly effective at improving concentration and alertness, reducing fatigue, and enhancing overall cognitive function. Feeling more in control in turn helps to reduce stress and allows you to sleep more soundly.