Destress Your Day – How Exercise Affects Your Mental Health
By: Brenda O'Hara
I'm sure you've heard and maybe even experienced how exercise is an effective form of stress relief. Sometimes this can seem contradicting, since there is an immediate stress response on the body during physical activity. For many, the idea alone, of trying to squeeze in a workout can be stressful. So how exactly does exercise reduce stress?
According to Matthew Stults-Kolehmainen, Ph.D., a kinesiologist at the Yale Stress Center, exercise can reduce stress is two different ways. He told HuffPost Healthy Living that raising one’s heart rate can actually reverse damage to the brain caused by stressful events. “Stress atrophies the brain — especially the hippocampus, which is responsible for a lot, but memory in particular. When you’re stressed, you forget things.”
Exercise also increases your endorphins. What are endorphins? They are your brain's “feel good” neurotransmitters. Exercise creates what is often known as a “runner’s high.” This can be described as a feeling of euphoria, happiness, or other positive emotions that come from pushing yourself physically. You do NOT have to run to feel this way. Any form of physical activity, whether it's yoga, basketball, hiking, strength training, swimming, etc, can cause you to feel this same rush.
Physical activity does temporarily raise a stress hormone in our body known as cortisol. However, this is just temporary and doesn't leave any lingering stress or harm to the body. Cortisol levels will return back to normal quite quickly following a workout.
The American Psychological Association states, “[Exercise] forces the body’s physiological systems — all of which are involved in the stress response — to communicate much more closely than usual. The cardiovascular system communicates with the renal system, which communicates with the muscular system. And all of these are controlled by the central and sympathetic nervous systems, which also must communicate with each other. This workout of the body’s communication system may be the true value of exercise; the more sedentary we get, the less efficient our bodies in responding to stress.”
This being said, next time you're stressing to find time to workout, don't. Take a minute to brainstorm some ways to get in some sort of physical activity in a time frame your day allows. It doesn't have to be an hour or two at the gym, it could be a simple 20-minute walk, or some yoga in your living room. Whatever it is you enjoy; the mind and body will truly benefit. Stress levels will be lowered, mood and energy levels will be lifted.