How Does Exercise Reduce Stress? Look at the Science

Think the only reason to work out is to stay fit? Neuroscience researcher Rita Hitching, MSc, explains how exercise is the gift that keeps on giving, especially when it comes to reducing stress. It’s not a stretch to say that we’re living in stressful times. When things start to feel overwhelming, I know it’s time to reassess how I go about managing the stress and demands in my life. As a neuroscience researcher, I’m all about the facts. And a search of the scientific literature on how to relieve stress provides an emphatic response: exercise.

How does the body respond to stress?

Before learning how exercise reduces stress, let’s first look at how your body responds to stress.

Fight or Flight Response

When you’re stressed, your body is in a state known as fight or flight. It prepares itself to literally fight for its life or run to safety. The process involves the body’s stress response system, a beautifully tuned and finely evolved system that includes every organ in the body. The race for survival starts the moment your brain senses or perceives a threat. At that moment, the hypothalamus triggers the pituitary gland—located deep in the base of your old reptilian brain—to send out an emergency signal. That signal is received by the adrenal gland, situated above the kidneys. Located in the inner part of the adrenal gland, the adrenal medulla releases a unique blend of hormones into the bloodstream. Together, they’re the equivalent of a warning bell ringing in every organ in the body. They include:
  • cortisol
  • epinephrine (adrenaline)
  • norepinephrine (noradrenaline)
From there, the message is simple: Get ready to fight for your life. In tandem, blood starts to move away from the center of the body to the limbs, getting your legs ready to to run or your arms ready to punch. Additionally, this state of stress or arousal affects the digestive system, as there are cells in the gut that are sensitive to stress hormones. This perhaps explains why people who experience chronic stress often have digestive problems. The amazing thing is that this all happens even before you’re fully aware of the danger. Woman stressed in bed to show how stress and sleep quality are related

Sleep + Stress

The most common telltale sign that someone’s under immense stress is disrupted sleep. This includes difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up tired. On top of perpetuating stress, negative changes to the quantity or quality of sleep impact your immune system. While you sleep, your body is busy with cell and neuronal regeneration. Disrupted sleep due to stress impairs your body’s ability to rest and recover. The result: a greater likelihood of getting sick. An additional impact of poor sleep from stress is the impact on your mood. While you sleep, your brain does its housekeeping. Shortly after you fall asleep, the brain starts to “wash” itself. It does so by allowing more cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) to flush out the day’s toxins (taking out the trash, so to speak). When the brain doesn’t get enough time to take out this “trash” from lack of sleep, your mood takes a nosedive. You wake up feeling groggy and lethargic. Stress creates this vicious cycle by disrupting your sleep patterns—a cycle that you can help control and improve with exercise.

How does exercise reduce stress?

Now that you know how your body responds to stress, it’s time to learn how exercise helps stress.

Exercise Releases Happy Hormones

Exercise leads to the release of endorphins. To put it simply, endorphins make you feel good. Feeling good gives you the confidence to know you have what it takes to deal with your challenges. With this, you can see a clear link between exercise and stress relief. Plus, the brain’s feel-good hormones, dopamine and serotonin, are the bounty of exercise and improve your well-being and mood.


Stress creates a cytokine and glucocorticoids (GCs) storm. This results in your entire body getting to a state of inflammation and oxidative stress, causing it to age faster. Fortunately, exercise has the benefit of reducing oxidative stress. It also reverses the aging effects of inflammation on cells and organs. A long walk, preferably in a green, open space is the best medicine. The fresh air will boost your oxygen levels, too. Your mood will lift, and your mind will be able to put the day’s stressors in perspective. Man serving for a tennis match on clay court, reducing stress through exercising with a friend


Research shows the benefits of meditation and mindfulness to relieve stress. Think of exercise as a type of mindfulness meditation in motion. Mindful exercise encourages a calm, focused mindset. Better yet, it can stay with you throughout the day. If you’re not the sit-still type, it’s an excellent alternative to traditional meditation or mindfulness for stress relief. Any type of exercise that’s repetitive and methodical will do. If it involves having to do precise, flowing movements, even better. For instance, think tai chi. It’s a form of exercise that encourages the mind to focus. It also provides an opportunity to stop worrying and just be. If you want the same mindfulness meditation in motion, but prefer something more dynamic, consider a game of tennis. It has the added benefit of being social and requires the brain to focus and predict the activity of the other player. Such activities are excellent to keep your brain sharp. In sum, mindful exercise encourages optimism and energy. Thus, it’s a great antidote to stress.

what exercises can help reduce stress?

We’ve all got enough on our plates as it is. So here’s the good news: Any kind of exercise acts as a form of stress relief. You read that right—any type of exercise. Take this fact as inspiration, even if you:
  • don’t like running
  • hate cardio
  • haven’t exercised all year
  • think you’re too out of shape
Wondering what the most effective kind of exercise for stress relief is? The answer is simple: any type of physical activity you enjoy and do on a regular basis. There’s limited research that says one type of exercise is better at reducing stress than another. We’re all different. Some are more athletic. Others have injuries that prevent them from participating in certain types of exercise. Others don’t have much extra time to devote to working out. However, we can all include some kind of physical activity into our daily lives and get relief from stress. It can be as simple as getting off the bus a couple of stops earlier. You can also perform gentle chair stretches on a sunny balcony. In sum, you don’t necessarily need to focus on the type of exercise. Just make sure you get moving. Woman doing yoga at home next to her dog, as one of the best exercises for stress relief

How often should I exercise?

The Department of Health and Human Services recommends 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per week. For most of us, that averages to about 20 to 30 minutes per day. If you think you can’t find 30 minutes in your day, remember that any incidental exercise counts.

When is the best time of day to exercise?

In terms of what time of day you should exercise, the evidence is contradictory. Some studies suggest exercising first thing in the morning, before the demands of the day start. However, there’s plenty of research on the benefits of exercising in the middle of the day. It can be an excellent way to break up the day and mitigate the stresses or demands of work, especially if you sit at a desk all day. Consider going to a lunchtime yoga class or taking quick power walk around the block. Both are great ways to reset and get ready for your afternoon tasks. Finally, note that vigorous exercise late in the day isn’t typically recommended. Alternatively, stretching or mindful exercise before bedtime can be a great way to wind down before sleep. All things considered, the time of day you exercise is less important than making sure you exercise to begin with. Find a time that suits you and your lifestyle. Add it to your calendar, and stick to it. Man tying sneakers outdoors before a morning exercise

The Bottom Line

If you’re dealing with stress, follow the science and get moving. As a reminder, when you work out, you get both healthy exercise and stress relief. It’s a win-win. Do whatever physical activity you enjoy. Dance to your favorite music. Go for power walks or do some gentle stretching. One of my personal favorites is walking my dog. Exercise at whatever time of day works for you, and stick with it to promote lasting relief from stress.
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