Along with making sure you get enough sleep, regular exercise is the most common advice we hear whenever we go through a stressful period. It is pretty much common knowledge that daily physical activity has a positive impact on our mental health, and that it plays a huge role in alleviating symptoms of stress – with immediate as well as long term effects. But how does that work, exactly? What is it that happens in our bodies when we work out, and how does that impact our stressed minds? In this article, we’ll explain how exercise helps to relieve stress – scientifically.
The connection between mind and body
In our current day and age, mind and body are often regarded as two separate entities. In reality, they are connected in more ways than we can even comprehend. Our mental state has a huge impact on our physical health. When our brain is affected by stress, sooner or later our body will be affected as well. We could give many examples of the inseparable connection of mind and body. Think about how your heart rate increases and your breathing quickens when your brain registers a threat. How being madly in love with someone reduces your appetite. How being nervous before an important exam or a big presentation makes your stomach churn.
These connections are not one-way streets – they also work the other way around. That means that when your body feels better, your mind feels better as well.
How does exercise help to relieve stress?
The benefits of exercise on mental health have been known for centuries. The Greek philosopher Plato even believed that “exercise would cure a guilty conscience”. It may seem somewhat contradictory, since exercise is basically a form of physical stress. How does generating physical stress help to reduce mental stress?
In order to explain that, we need to talk about neurotransmitters. These organic molecules are crucial for proper brain functioning. Exercise directly influences our neurochemistry in the following ways:
It reduces stress hormones
Physical activity reduces the levels of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol.
It increases the production on endorphins
Endorphins are the feel-good neurotransmitters; they are basically your body’s own, natural pain killers and mood boosters. There are over twenty different types of endorphins; some of them have an effect that is even stronger dan morphine.
It creates a dopamine boost
Endorphins work together with another crucial neurotransmitter: dopamine. This neural messenger, often referred to as the ‘motivation molecule’ is responsible for motivation and reward; it is what gives us that sense of satisfaction after accomplishing a task. It also plays a crucial role in our executive functions, attention-span, focus and our ability to experience pleasure.
It ensures a healthy serotonin balance
Physical activity results in an increased release and synthesis of serotonin. This neurotransmitter is involved in many physiological processes relating to sleep, body temperature regulation, muscle control, appetite and digestion and libido. Serotonin also helps to stabilize your mood and well-being.
The above has all been scientifically proven, so you don’t have to take our word for it. But the ways that exercise helps to relieve stress are not limited to how they influence our neurotransmitters. There are also emotional, behavioral and social factors that come into play. If you have been overweight, for example, and you start a regular workout regimen with a personal trainer, seeing and feeling how you’re losing excess fat and toning up will improve your self-image, confidence and pride. Along the same lines, an individual who has been dealing with insecurity, feelings of weakness and a lack of self-discipline will see significant improvement in these areas when they start weight training or martial arts. We see ourselves improve, and it often doesn’t take very long for others to notice it as well. The discipline, drive and energy that we get from exercising regularly tend to create a butterfly effect and help us to achieve our other goals in life. This in itself does not only reduce our overal stress levels but also enables us to handle stress better – it makes us more resilient. And since we can’t always prevent life from throwing stress-inducing events our way, we better make sure we are resilient enough to deal with it.