Exercise and Stress – Can exercising reduce stress and improve mood?

Brain and exercise

Whenever we ask people what activities or groups of activities improve the mood we invariably get a consensus that exercise is very beneficial. It seems that almost as many people feel that exercises is just as good for mental health as it is for physical health. But is it true?
Superficially we can quickly suggest, without too much fear of being challenged, that people who exercise more seem to have lower rates of anxiety and or depression than non-exercisers. Equally superficially we can suggest the release of endorphins that occurs in and after exercise is the super hero of our story but is there more to this than the aforementioned popular notion? As well as examining what effects exercise has on stress, we also intend to take a quick look at what effects stress has on exercise – there are two sides to every coin.

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A very interesting page on the website of the APA questions the endorphins link or at least the level of effectiveness endorphins can have on stress. The brief article posits that norepinephrine (noradrenaline to our UK visitors) might be the actual big player in stress management in exercisers. It appears that norepinephrine plays a major role in regulating other neurotransmitters associated with stress. Venlafaxine, a fairly modern antidepressant medication is one of a family of drugs that alter the interaction of norepinephrine in our dopamine pathways. The same APA article also begs the question of simple biological improvements occurring in exercise that may steady the ship in times of stress. When we exercise, a myriad of systems have to engage with each other and this increased interplay and communication between the systems proves useful when the going gets tough whether that be physical or psychological.

It is also possible that exercise reduces levels of stress chemicals such as cortisol and adrenaline in our bodies. Cortisol is typically released during ‘bad’ events and is responsible for much of that pent up feeling when we become upset. Cortisol frequently courses around the blood stream for about an hour but two hours is not unknown. If exercise can mitigate against this then bring it on. This leads to another psychological factor – if we get less cortisol surging through us during stressful events we will start to view stress very differently as its effects reduce leaving us less concerned about more difficult moments.

There are some other quite simple reasons for exercise improving our psychological resilience. If we look better we simply feel better and our self-esteem is higher. If our esteem is higher we view the world very differently to those with lower self-esteem. Tricky events seem to be of a smaller magnitude if we have a healthy self-esteem.

It is important that some physical demands are placed on the body for exercise to be effective but no one has to be running marathons to reap some very real benefits. Maybe that’s the cue for a fast walk with the dog.

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