Stress can really play havoc on your body as much as your mind. So it’s important to get familiar with ways to minimise stress when it comes up or, even better, set yourself up to preemptively respond better to stressful situations, and the subsequent risk of developing anxiety. There are many ways to do this, but one tried and true method to not only reduce stress, but also offer a whole host of beneficial returns on investment for your health is through exercise. Here’s how exercise works to reduce stress and anxiety in the short and long term.
What happens to the body during exercise?
In the short term, your body experiences an immediate response to physical activity. Let’s start from the top… Our brain loves exercise. When we engage in movement, the brain creates mood regulating neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. Adrenaline increases, stimulating the heart and making it beat faster. Unlike when adrenaline is released with anxiety, stress or panic attacks, exercise is your body working cohesively with these increased levels, and giving them somewhere to go (rather than putting undue pressure on the heart and brain). Within just a few minutes, you’ll experience increased blood flow in the brain, blocking pain signals using energy systems and making you more alert.
As you move, your larger muscles (in the arms and legs) contract veins to pump blood back to the heart, while strengthening the muscles and, so, the body.
The more you engage in physical activity, the stronger these mechanisms become, and the longer the benefits last. While you retain the instantaneous benefits with each workout, the more you do, the more you find these benefits continue when you aren’t exercising. Some people find their sleep, appetite and mood are regulated and improved within just a few sessions of movement, while others can take longer.
However, what we can achieve in terms of physical activity is not a one size fits all solution, and not being able to do what you perceive to be adequate can be a hurdle to trying at all.
How to get the benefits when exercise itself is a hurdle
The good news about the benefits of exercise is that you don’t need to be an elite athlete, or even be able to walk up a flight of, to experience them. Studies have long shown there are great life-extending benefits to even 20-30 minutes of light exercise (a stroll around the block). If you are physically hindered from being able to exercise at the gym or in a class, or even find it mentally difficult to get motivated, starting small produces great results. You will simply counter your best efforts if exercise feels like an added stress, makes you feel worthless (if you’re not able to suddenly do 50 burpees), or worsens existing injuries. Meet your body and mind where it’s at, and ease gently into sustainable, positive movement habits. Even if this is just walking around your backyard, doing a few upper body movements while seated or taking a stroll up and down your street.
If you are unsure about where to start, and feel hindered by physical or mental barriers, talk to our knowledgeable CK Health team and start the first step.