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Woman getting ready to exercise to reduce stress


Why hitting the gym has a positive effect.

Stress — and how to reduce it — is one of those ubiquitous conversation topics that can be heard almost anywhere, from the doctor’s office to a dinner party. And it’s no wonder, as chronic stress can put your health at risk, not to mention that stress is a common.

Now that we’ve shared a bunch of the bad news, here’s some good: Exercise can reduce stress. In fact, numerous studies have described an association between physical activity and general wellbeing and mood. 1 2 (It’s worth noting that studies tend to focus on aerobic exercise — running, swimming, etc.) But just how does exercise impact your life? Here, an overview.

Exercise can help improve mood.

When mood has been measured immediately before and after physical exertion, the results are overwhelmingly positive. Specifically, exercise training can reduce anxious mood in both those with high anxiety or those with a typical level.3 Although some outliers exist (for instance, whether the exercise was competitive, and whether study participants were exercising at a more intense level than usual) and more studies are needed, generally exercise is associated with a mood boost.

Just like exercise can improve mood, it can also help reduce anxiousness. One literature review combined results of three large studies and concluded that self-reported levels of exercise correlated with better mental health, including fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression.

How does exercise do this? The reasons are complex (and still being studied). But one theory is that exercise triggers certain events inside your body, the outcome of which is a higher resilience against stress-related disorders.

Exercise might have lasting benefits.

Speaking of anxiety and depression, there is some evidence that physical activity might help reduce risk of future symptoms. In a recent meta-analysis of 13 studies on the topic, the combined results showed a 22% reduced risk of developing depressive symptoms for the active groups in the studies.

More research is needed, but many studies show that stress sensitivity can be reduced after exercise, helping your body resist the ramifications of stressors.

In fact, exercise is an emerging therapy for the elderly, as there is some evidence showing that physical exertion might mitigate the brain degeneration associated with Alzheimer’s disease and old age.4

Exercise might even help improve sleep.

Although it might seem counterintuitive, exercise could even have a beneficial effect on sleep quality. One recent meta-analysis that gathered current studies on the topic featuring older adults (those over 40), found that exercise training improved sleep quality for those studied. So although participants didn’t necessarily sleep more, they slept better. 5

It’s important to talk to your doctor about starting or modifying your exercise plan.


  1. Strohle, Andreas. Physical Activity, Exercise, Depression, and Anxiety Disorders. Journal of Neural Transmission, June 2009, Vol. 116, issue 6, pp 777-784.
  2. Hamer et al. Physical Activity, Stress Reduction, and Mood: Insights into Immunological Mechanisms. Psychoneuroimmunology Methods in Molecular Biology Volume 934, 2012, pp 89 102.
  3. Salmon, Peter. Effects of Physical Exercise on Anxiety, Depression, and Sensitivity to Stress – A Unifying Theory. Clinical Psychology Review, Vol. 21, No. 1, Feb 2001, pp 33–61, 2001.
  4. Intlekofer, K. and Cotma, C. Exercise Counteracts Declining Hippocampal Function in Aging and Alzheimer’s Disease. Neurobiology of Disease, Vol. 57, Sept. 2003, pp 47-55.
  5. Yang, P., et al. Exercise Training Improves Sleep Quality in Middle-Aged and Older Adults with Sleep Problems: A Systematic Review. Journal of Physiotherapy, Vol. 58, No. 3. Sept. 2012: pp 157-163.

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