Your job leaves you frazzled, your bank account is shrinking, and the paper is full of bad news. Rather than breaking into an (unhealthy) sweat, why not try smacking a tennis ball, going dancing, or taking a long walk? Exercise won't make stress disappear, but it can prepare your mind and body to deal with life's difficulties. In fact, many doctors are prescribing exercise to battle stress as well as depression and anxiety.
You may worry that trying to fit regular exercise into your already busy life will add still more stress. But if you're not overly ambitious, start out slowly, and don't stress out about missing out on a day or two here and there, getting active will eventually start to function as a stress reducer. Here's why:
When you're on a bicycle, a basketball court, or the floor of a yoga class, your brain and body are fighting stress in ways that scientists are just beginning to understand. Exercise, for example, encourages your brain to produce a special chemical messenger called norepinephrine. This chemical becomes especially abundant in the part of the brain that controls your emotions and manages your response to stress. Nobody knows exactly what message norepinephrine is sending, but the American Psychological Association reports that it could prime the brain to efficiently handle stress.
Exercise may also help the rest of your body respond to stressful situations. Consider how much a workout has in common with a moment of panic: Your pulse races, your breath quickens, and your sweat glands work overtime. According to the APA, exercise is like a trial run for actual stress. The parts of the body that are sensitive to stress learn how to communicate and cooperate, leaving you much better prepared to face life beyond the gym.
A good workout can certainly help rein in blood pressure, which is often linked to stress. Over the years, 15 different studies have tracked the blood pressure of people exposed to mentally stressful situations after a bout of exercise. According to a review published in Biological Psychology in 2006, the studies consistently show that 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise helps keep blood pressure from soaring under stress. The studies indicate that a good workout can help calm the body and mind in tough times.
Regular activity can help people cope with even the toughest challenges -- including life-threatening illnesses. A study of cancer patients published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that a 10-week program of light or moderate aerobic exercise significantly improved patients' energy levels and outlook on life. As a bonus, they also increased their stamina, improved flexibility, and lost fat.
More recent studies have found that quality of life and health-related outcomes significantly improve among breast cancer survivors when they engage in aerobic exercise programs soon after completion of breast cancer therapy.
Start with 10 minutes
You don't need to become a mega-athlete to bust stress. According to the Mayo Clinic, just 10 minutes of moderate exercise each day can be enough to improve your mood. If you're not active now, simply taking a short walk every day is a great place to start. As your fitness improves, you can aim for 30 to 60 minutes of physical activity on at least five days out of the week. At this level, you'll be strengthening your heart while fighting stress.
If you have a significant illness such as heart disease or diabetes, you should check with your doctor before starting an exercise program. You should also check with your doctor if you're middle-aged or older and plan to drastically increase your exercise level.
When you're ready to get started, be sure to find activities that you actually enjoy. If you loathe your routine, exercise will actually add more stress to your life. Exercise should be safe, fun, and rewarding. Put those three things together, and you'll be in great shape for the stresses that come your way.
American Psychological Association. Exercise fuels the brain's stress buffers. 2004. http://www.apahelpcenter.org/articles/article.php?id=25
Burnham TR and A Wilcox. Effects of exercise on physiological and psychological variables in cancer survivors. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. December 2002. 34(2): 1863-1867.
American Heart Association. Physical activity and a healthy heart. http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=1518
American Heart Association. Physical Activity. http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=4563
American Academy of Family Physicians. Stress: How to cope better with life's challenges. July 2005. http://familydoctor.org/167.xml
Mayo Clinic. Exercise to ease depression. June 2004. http://www.mayoclinic.org/news2004-mchi/2329.html.
Saxton JM et al. Study protocol to investigate the effect of a lifestyle intervention on body weight, psychological health status and risk factors associated with disease recurrence in women recovering from breast cancer treatment. BMC Cancer. Feb. 9, 2006. 6(1): 35
Hamer, M et al. The effect of acute aerobic exercise on stress related blood pressure responses: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Biological Psychology. February 2006. 71(2): 183-190
Milne, HM, et al. Effects of a combined aerobic and resistance exercise program in breast cancer survivors: A randomized controlled trial. Breast Cancer Research and Treatment. March 2008; 108(2): 279-88.