How does exercise reduce stress?
There’s no denying the physical benefits of exercise. Getting your body moving on a regular basis can help you maintain a healthy weight, as well as improve your energy levels and stamina. It can also help lower your blood pressure and reduce your risk of developing a whole host of potential health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes and even some cancers.
But did you know exercise is important for maintaining mental wellbeing too? In fact, making an effort to move your body has been shown to improve your mental state, reduce your stress levels and help relieve feelings of tension and anxiety.
So, if you think that you could do with getting your stress levels under control, upping your workout game might be just what you need. To learn more about the advantages of exercise for your mind, body and soul, including which exercises, breathing techniques and foods are best for stress relief, keep reading.
Why does exercise relieve stress?
When you exercise, your brain releases chemicals called endorphins. Otherwise known as ‘happy hormones’, endorphins act as natural painkillers, and once these feel-good chemicals have been released, they can trigger a positive, uplifting feeling throughout your body. As a result, this can make you feel happier, more relaxed and calmer, giving you a serious mood boost that can last a long time after your workout has ended. It’s also thought that endorphins can help clear your mind and improve your ability to sleep, which, in turn, can help you feel less stressed and anxious.
What is the best exercise for stress relief?
It could be argued that any form of exercise can help relieve stress - but there are some specific workouts that are thought to really help get those all important feel-good endorphins flowing, helping you to feel relaxed and at ease. Some of the best stress-busting exercises include:
Aside from increasing strength and flexibility, yoga is a popular mind-body practice that can bring both physical and mental benefits. When used alongside controlled breathing and mindfulness, yoga can significantly lower stress levels, as well as blood pressure and heart rate.
An ancient Chinese non-competitive martial art, Tai Chi is recognized as being one of the most effective exercises for both the mind and body, linking flowing physical movements with controlled breathing. It’s thought to improve muscular strength, flexibility and immunity, while also promoting a sense of peace and serenity.
Pilates is known for its ability to relieve stress and anxiety. While it can help strengthen muscles and improve flexibility, this exercise can also release tension in the muscles, especially when accompanied by the correct breathing techniques. Practicing deep breathing provides more oxygen to the brain, which can trigger feelings of relaxation.
Dancing can be both fun and stress-relieving. This kind of exercise harnesses self-expression and creativity, helping to build confidence, which in turn can reduce feelings of tension and anxiety. In terms of physical benefits, dancing can aid in weight loss, help build muscle, improve heart health and strengthen bones.
A blend of boxing and martial arts, kickboxing can be practiced for fitness, self-defense or sport. It offers a number of stress-busting advantages too. This exercise can help you build confidence, while also burning calories and maintaining a high metabolic rate.
How to breathe for stress relief
Good breathing techniques can also help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. These exercises are easy to fit into your day as they only take a few moments and can be practiced from just about anywhere.
Before you start, you should make sure you’re not wearing anything that could restrict your breathing. It’s up to you whether you carry out the techniques while you’re standing up or lying down. Regardless of the position you choose, your feet should be roughly hip-width apart.
When it comes to putting the technique into practice, allow your breath to flow deep down into your stomach, breathing in through your nose. Keep your breathing gentle and regular, and count slowly from one to five.
Once you’ve reached five, let your breath out gently through your mouth and then repeat the technique again. Ideally, you should aim to keep going for around three to five minutes.
Can eating healthily help with stress?
Sticking to a healthy, balanced diet can play a huge part in keeping your stress levels in check.. Especially when accompanied by a regular exercise regime, nutritious meals and snacks can help improve the flow of blood around your body. This means that key nutrients are delivered to your brain, which can reduce the negative effects of stress on your mind and body.
Eating well is beneficial for your overall wellbeing but these superfoods in particular can help to keep your stress levels down:
Ideally, your diet should consist of lots of leafy green vegetables - especially spinach. Spinach contains folate, which produces dopamine - a pleasure-inducing brain chemical that can help you feel calm and minimize your stress levels. You can get extra spinach into your diet by consuming a protein drink that contains spinach extract.
The antioxidants in dark chocolate trigger the walls of your blood vessels to relax, which can lower your blood pressure and improve circulation, helping you feel calmer. Opting for a protein drink that contains dark chocolate is a great way to fill up on this superfood.
If you’re anxious, your body will start to crave vitamin C in a bid to help repair and protect your cells. Blueberries are bursting with antioxidants and vitamin C, both of which can help provide anxiety relief and improve your body’s response to stress.
When you’re feeling stressed, your anxiety hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, can go into overdrive. The omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon offer anti-inflammatory properties that can help counteract the negative effects of these hormones.
Carbohydrates can help the brain produce serotonin - the hormone that promotes happiness and wellbeing. However, instead of opting for a sugary carb, such as a doughnut, go for complex carbs, like oatmeal, to prevent your blood glucose levels from spiking.
Between exercising, practicing breathing techniques and adopting a healthy, balanced diet, there’s no reason why you can’t reduce your stress to live a happier, more fulfilled life.