Stress is a mental thing, so how could it relate to a physical event like exercise?

Fit and StrongThe popular theory is that exercise releases endorphins – those feel-good neurotransmitters in the brain. But according to an article by the American Psychological Association[1] one line of research shows that this is more likely to be due to the neuromodulator norepinephrine, which may help the brain deal with stress more efficiently. Most of this neuromodulator is produced in an area of the brain linked to emotional and stress responses, so it should come as no a big surprise that some antidepressants increase brain concentrations of norepinephrine.

A second avenue being explored is that exercise prevents depression and anxiety by enhancing the body’s ability to respond to stress. How? By giving the body a chance to practice dealing with stress on a biological level. It forces the body’s physiological systems (the cardiovascular, renal and muscular systems, which are all controlled by the central and sympathetic nervous systems) to communicate much more closely than usual – and this workout of the body’s communication system may be the true value of exercise. So the less exercise one does, the less efficient your body’s response to stress may be.

While the experts debate and do research, the bottom line is that in some way, exercise helps one to cope with stress! Exercise increases your overall health and your sense of well-being, and that in itself is a stress reliever. In fact, regular participation in some form of aerobic exercise has been shown to decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilise mood, improve sleep, and improve self-esteem. Reducing stress will in turn reduce feelings of fatigue, improve alertness and concentration, and enhance overall cognitive functioning. If your body feels better, so will your mind.

There are some basic relationships between exercise and stress relief:

  • It is meditation in motion.While exercising, you don’t have time to think of your daily dramas and irritations – your body allows you to go with the flow. Physical activity can take your mind off your problems and either redirect it to what you are doing or induce a more relaxed mental state. And the sense of calmness and release will continue long after the exercise has stopped.
  • It improves your mood.Regular exercise will relax you and decrease feelings of stress, depression and anxiety and may even lead to improved sleep – thus acting as a natural anti-depressant.
  • It provides an outlet for frustrations: More high-energy forms of exercise like weight training and boxing provide an effective release for negative emotions.
  • It improves your self-image: While this may seem like a superficial benefit, toning your body and having control over it is not to be dismissed lightly! A shrinking waistline is usually accompanied by increased pride in yourself and self-confidence. And what a boost to your self-confidence when you fit into clothes you haven’t worn for years J
  • Social support: The Fitness League is well known for its social side – after all, its motto is fitness, fun and friendship! League ladies know about each other’s lives and doings, care about each other and provide a sympathetic place to share feelings.

Last but not least, the renewed vigor and increased energy you experience because of exercising will help you succeed in many tasks, and the discipline of regular exercise could help you achieve other lifestyle goals.

[1] American Psychological Association, Exercise fuels the brain’s stress buffers, (accessed 3 March 2017).

Marielienne Janneke