According to mental health charity Mind one in six people experience a mental health issue such as anxiety or depression during any given week, while stress can have a negative effect on anyone’s health and well-being. 
There are a number of different ways to relieve stress and anxiety. Techniques such as meditation, relaxation and mindfulness work for some people while different types of therapies can also be extremely valuable.
One of the most accessible ways to help with stress may be through exercise and physical activity. Almost anyone can undertake some sort of exercise and the benefits could be significant – not only in improving your overall health and well-being but in dealing with stress and anxiety.
Does exercise relieve stress and anxiety?
So does exercise help stress and anxiety? The Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA) says that regular aerobic exercise has been shown to have a number of beneficial effects, including maintaining your mental as well as physical fitness, reducing stress and combatting the effects of anxiety .
While stress and anxiety are a part of life for everybody to varying degrees, anxiety disorders are more serious. They are among the most common psychiatric illnesses in the US (as well as the UK) and the ADAA says there is evidence that physical exercise can help.
There is also some evidence that people who are physically active tend to experience lower levels of stress and anxiety than those who have more sedentary lifestyles.
But exactly how does exercise relieve stress and anxiety? Here are six ways that physical activity can have a positive impact…
6 ways exercise can help relieve stress and anxiety
- It can help you release endorphins
Endorphins are often known as the ‘feel good’ chemicals of the brain and body. They help to relieve stress and pain but also promote a sense of well-being and euphoria. People who take regular exercise may even experience a ‘high’ from their physical activity – and one which is far healthier and more natural than that produced by external drug use.
- It can distract you from your worries
While you are exercising, you are less likely to be focusing on your worries or getting caught in destructive thought cycles. If you are engaged in a sport of some type you might be fully focused on the result.
In the case of repetitive activity such as running or working out at the gym, you might be able to lose yourself in the rhythm of the activity. Different types of yoga exercises help with stress and anxiety, with many people combining the physical routines with relaxation or meditative techniques. Breathing exercises for stress and anxiety can also be combined with physical activities.
- It can improve your sleep
Sleep and stress have a complex relationship. Stress can disrupt sleep patterns while poor sleep patterns can also cause or increase levels of stress and anxiety. The American Psychological Association calls this the sleep-stress cycle.
Around a fifth, (21%) of adults say they feel more stressed when they do not get enough sleep while more than a third (37%) say they feel more tired due to stress. Taking regular exercise has been shown to improve sleep – although there are plenty of other factors involved in getting a good night’s sleep.
- It can improve your confidence
Exercise can sometimes help you feel more confident in yourself. This may be linked to your own body image and factors such as losing weight but simply becoming fitter and healthier can improve your confidence.
Achieving fitness goals or improving at particular sports may also help you with confidence and self-image, which can have a positive knock-on effect on stress and anxiety.
- It can counteract the effects of stress and anxiety
Exercise can have a major impact on the way your brain functions. As well as releasing endorphins, physical activity can also stimulate the release of chemicals such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, which are all important in regulating your mood.
Regular exercise can also help to lower stress hormones such as cortisol that are present in your system. All of this helps to counteract some of the negative impacts that stress and anxiety can have on your whole system.
- It can help you make connections
The best exercise for stress and anxiety can vary from one individual to the next, but many sports also have a social aspect. This applies particularly to team sports but can also be the case if you attend exercise classes or even if you are a regular at the gym.
Some people may benefit from these connections, even if it puts them outside their comfort zone at first. Of course, some people would rather exercise on their own, whether that’s in the gym or jogging outside, and solo exercise can still be extremely beneficial.
The physical and mental benefits of regular exercise
As you can see, participating in regular exercise can potentially lower your stress and anxiety, as well as mitigating the effects of the stress and anxiety you do experience. This can still be the case even if you suffer from anxiety disorders as well as ‘regular’ stress from everyday life.
Common exercises to help with stress could include yoga, running, walking, workouts and team sports but pretty much every form of physical activity can be beneficial. The important thing is to try to find one that suits you and that you enjoy, rather than one you dread or force yourself into.
There are plenty of other benefits from regular exercise as well, however. It can help you stay physically fit and independent, can help you control your weight, reduce the risk of heart disease and many other physical ailments.
It’s worth remembering though, that if you are out of shape or have certain health conditions, you should consult a healthcare professional before plunging into a new exercise regime.