Exercise as Stress Management: How Workouts Help Your Wellbeing

Dr. Allison Brager
Dr. Allison Brager
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Exercise should not be stressful. I repeat exercise should not be stressful. Exercise should alleviate stress.

Before I get into the biological explanation as to why exercise should and ought to alleviate stress, let's briefly discuss how different types of exercise alleviate different kinds of stress.

This topic is especially important for a Wellness Coach to consider. 

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The Different Kinds of Stress

First, yes there are different kinds of stress.

Stress can be:

Physiological - This is the lesser-known kind of stress but the one that can largely predict overall health and wellness. Physiological stress is manifest through hyper-activation of the sympathetic nervous system and an elevated heart rate well after exercising.

If your body feels "on edge," perhaps consider several options: sleeping more, hydrating more, and eating nutrient-dense foods. Usually, one of the three is the culprit.

Psychological - Usually psychological stress is manifest in the form of anxiety and/or erratic behavior. An individual feels overwhelmed and often trapped in their decision-making processes. Psychological stress prevents us from thinking and acting with a sense of clarity as well as a lack of motivation to attend to whatever task we have.

Read: How to Lower Cortisol for more information on the benefits of managing stress. 

Three Types of Exercise to Relieve Stress

In regards to different kinds of exercise alleviating different kinds of stress, let's focus on three different modalities.

  1. Cardio
  2. Weight Training
  3. Yoga and Stretching

Cardio & Weight Training

Cardio and weight training can help alleviate both physiological and psychological stress through similar mechanisms. Cardio and weight training better primes cardiovascular function and the autonomic nervous system. As we improve upon our overall fitness through cardio and weight training, our body gains better control over changes in heart rate. Cardio and weight training also helps alleviate stress-related weight gain.

With repeated training sessions, the heart does not have to work as hard to complete the same amount of work. An individual's heart rate does not skyrocket so rapidly into training but also decreases more rapidly after training. Cardio and weight training also create better stop-and-go control over activation or de-activation of the stress-promoting arm of the autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic nervous system.

This is one of many reasons why cardiovascular and anaerobic conditioning can increase heart rate variability: a positive measure of overall health and wellness. Cardio and weight training also alleviate psychological stress through the production of the runner's and weightlifter high. Cardio triggers the release of "happy" chemicals and hormones including:

Endorphins - A bodily hormone released in response to exercise that produces a feeling of being "strong" and "powerful".

Testosterone - Both men and women produce and release testosterone in response to exercise. It is a hormone of recovery after all. Testosterone much like endorphins increases the feeling of being "strong" and "powerful."

Dopamine - A chemical produced and released from several brain areas that increase pleasure and reward-seeking behaviors.

Serotonin - A chemical produced and released from several brain areas that improve mood and positive affect.

Yoga & Stretching

Yoga and stretching also alleviate physiological and psychological stress but through a very different mechanism of action. Both activate the recovery and regeneration arm of the autonomic nervous system: the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is what triggers recovery at a systems level.

From the release of anabolic hormones such as growth hormone to priming anabolic processes such as energy stores. Both yoga and stretching are intended to decrease not increase heart rate. Collectively, yoga, stretching, cardio, and weight training all improve heart variability; whereas yoga and stretching prime the parasympathetic arm factored into heart rate variability, cardio and weight training prime the sympathetic arm factored into heart rate variability.

Yoga and stretching trigger the release of "relaxing" chemicals in the body. Mechanisms of action include:

Reduction in release of endorphins - While endorphins can be fantastic, there is a physiological trade-off if their release is too prolonged. Yoga and stretching help to prevent the prolonged release of endorphins.

GABA - GABA is the primary neurochemical globally released across the brain that leads to inhibition of physiology and behavior. While too much GABA release can lead to sleepiness and fatigue, the right amount fully activates a parasympathetic nervous system response to augment recovery and regeneration.

Exercise Helps You Sleep

The ability of exercise to regulate stress also has second-and third-order effects on additional recovery and regeneration processes such as sleep. The release of endorphins triggered through cardio and weight training increases physiological pressures to sleep.

As a result, this primes the body to enter and achieve restorative sleep at night which, in return, further augments anabolic processes discussed earlier: nighttime release of growth hormone, insulin growth factor, and testosterone more rapidly.

Also, activation of the parasympathetic nervous system through yoga and stretching better prepares the body and brain for sleep and helps to consolidate sleep across the night.

Check out The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise for more on this.

Exercise Stress Management Program You Can Try

There is not a one-size-fits-all approach in terms of how to integrate cardio, weight training, yoga, and stretching for overall stress management, health, and wellness. The approach will vary from individual to individual. Here is a general weekly program adapted from the principles and practices of the National Academy of Sports Medicine that can be used as a guideline:

Monday - 20 - 30 minutes of continuous cardio at 50 - 60% RPE followed by 30 - 45 minutes of isometric training targeting all muscle groups: anterior and posterior chain, upper and lower body. The intent is to prime the sympathetic nervous system for the week but not to overly stress the system.

Tuesday - 10 minutes of dynamic plyometrics at 80 - 90% RPE. Plyometrics comes in the form of the ladder and/or banded sprints, box jumps, burpees, and squats using assisted bands. These ten minutes will be challenging and therefore, extremely taxing on the autonomic nervous system resulting in rapid inclines and declines in heart rate increasing heart rate variability at large.

Wednesday - 20 - 30 minutes of continuous cardio at 50 - 60% RPE followed by 30 - 45 minutes of weight training targeting specific muscle groups. The intent is to continue to strengthen the sympathetic nervous system but backing down on effort so as not to overly stress the system.

Thursday - 30 - 45 minutes of yoga and stretching. These exercises are intended to give the sympathetic nervous system a day off by activating recovery and regeneration via the parasympathetic nervous system.

Friday & Saturday - Get outdoors and play a new sport often. Spending time outside the gym or learning a new skill can prevent burnout and keep motivation high. Being outside also increases vitamin D production, which is now linked to overall health and wellness, especially related to the immune system. Learning a new skill facilitates neuroplasticity: the act of improving the number and speed of neuronal connections across the brain.

Sunday - Rest Day. Rest is essential for overall stress management, recovery, and regeneration.

To conclude, how exercise leads to better stress management is multi-faceted. It occurs through the recruitment and activation of several systems of the body and brain, the release of numerous hormones and chemicals, and leads to varied types of positive changes to behavior, mood, and wellness.

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The Author

Dr. Allison Brager

Dr. Allison Brager

Dr. Brager is a subject matter expert in behavioral genetics, sleep, and biological rhythms research. She is passionate about discovering new factors that promote resiliency in extreme environments. She also serves on the NCAA task force for mental health and sleep, contributing to the first edition of the NCAA student-athlete mental health handbook. She is author of Meathead: Unraveling the Athletic Brain, which debunks the myth of the 'dumb jock' and serves as a performance manual for functional athletes. Outside of the laboratory, Allison was a two-time CrossFit Games (team) athlete, a two-time CrossFit Regionals (individual) athlete, and a four-year varsity NCAA Division I athlete in track and field. Dr. Brager has an Sc.B. in Psychology from Brown University and a Ph.D. in Physiology from Kent State University.

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