How to combat stress with exercise

Brendan Street,
Professional Head, Emotional Well-being

The health of your mind and body are intrinsically linked. Learn how physical activity can help to prevent and manage stress.

We’ve all experienced times when we feel like we don’t have the resources to cope with the demands placed upon us. Our capacity for mental or emotional pressure is very personal: what can be tolerable or motivating for one person can feel stressful for others.

When something makes us feel threatened or upset, our body’s defences trigger a stress response, leading to uncomfortable physical, mental and emotional sensations. You might notice your heart race and your blood pressure rise. You might struggle to sleep, go off food or comfort eat. If these feelings persist, anxiety or depression may follow.

But there’s a simple and free self-care tool that can help you cope with stress: exercise.

A rise in blood pressure

Evidence shows that exercise can be a useful tool in reducing and controlling blood pressure. Regularly breaking a sweat makes your heart stronger. A stronger heart can pump more blood with less effort. If your heart can pump more efficiently, the force on your arteries decreases, lowering your blood pressure.

An increase in heart rate

The body’s natural stress response to being upset or overwhelmed can cause a rise in heart rate. Stretching and relaxation exercises, such as yoga, can provide immediate relief as they encourage you to control your breathing through long, deep breaths, which lowers your heart rate.

Long-term, the easiest and most effective way to lower your heart rate is to exercise regularly. Aerobic exercise, when you get your heart pumping and feel the burn, strengthens your heart, trains it to pump more blood, and leads to a slower resting heart rate.

Sleep problems

Tossing and turning at night? Stress can make it difficult to switch off: rapid anxious thoughts are a sign your nervous system is in a heightened state of arousal. Tiredness and worrying about being tired only makes things worse.

Evidence suggests that moderate exercise can help improve quality of sleep. You should aim for a 30-minute session of moderate, but not intense, exercise five hours before bed daily to use up any excess calories and help you drift off. The activity also dulls anxiety and depressive feelings and cues your body’s natural sleep-wake rhythms, making it easier to relax.

Changes in appetite

We’ve all felt ‘butterflies’ in our stomach or experienced times when our tummy feels like it’s ‘tied in knots’ thanks to stress. New research has identified a strong connection between the gut and brain. The hormones and chemicals released under stress enter the digestive tract, giving us tummy trouble.

The good news is exercise can help gut bacteria in as little as six weeks. Researchers say the gut is healthier and more diverse in those who exercise, but activity needs to be regular and routine to keep gut bacteria topped up.

Anxiety and depression

Whether it’s scoring a goal, diving into a pool or exploring the climbing wall, taking part in sport has been shown to ease depression, anxiety and emotional distress. A review of research has found that even a single exercise session can have an immediate stress-busting effect and another review found that a regime of 10- to 30-minute exercise is sufficient for mood improvements. Another year-long study concluded that the benefits on mental health are long term too.

Working out has so much potential to enhance our wellbeing: low-intensity aerobic exercises, such as walking, yoga or swimming for 30–35 minutes, 3–5 days a week over 10–12 weeks have been shown to deliver the most powerful stress relief.

Thanks to Cancer Research UK London Winter Run partners Nuffield Health for the use of this article.