Exercise for Coping with Stress


Stress is an unavoidable part of everyday life. Work deadlines, financial worries, relationship issues, and other daily pressures can easily build up and feel overwhelming. While a small amount of stress can be motivating, chronic stress takes a toll both mentally and physically. Learning to cope with stress in healthy ways is critical for both short-term mental health and long-term wellbeing. Regular exercise is one of the most effective coping strategies for managing stress.


  1. How Exercise Helps Alleviate Stress
    1. Reduces Muscle Tension
    2. Releases Endorphins
    3. Lowers Blood Pressure
    4. Better Sleep
    5. Suppresses Cortisol
    6. Boosts Resilience
  2. Types of Exercise to Combat Stress
    1. Aerobic
    2. Strength Training
    3. Flexibility
    4. Mind-Body
  3. Tips for an Exercise Routine That Reduces Stress
    1. Schedule Workouts
    2. Try New Activities
    3. Exercise Outdoors
    4. Find an Accountability Partner
    5. Listen to Music
    6. Track Progress
    7. Cool Down and Stretch
    8. Know When To Take a Break
  4. Establishing an Ongoing Exercise Habit
    1. Start Small
    2. Schedule Ahead
    3. Make It Fun
    4. Allow Flexibility
    5. Track Successes
    6. Find Social Support
  5. Summary: How Exercise Tackles Stress
  6. Frequently Asked Questions About Using Exercise to Manage Stress
  7. Getting Started with Exercise to Relieve Stress
    1. What types of exercise are best for stress relief?
    2. How often should I exercise to combat stress?
    3. How strenuous does exercise for stress management need to be?
    4. What if I have an injury or mobility limitations?
  8. Maximizing the Anti-Stress Effects of Exercise
    1. Should I exercise in the morning or evening for stress relief?
    2. How soon before or after a stressful event should I exercise?
    3. Should I exercise outdoors or indoors to reduce stress?
    4. How can I stay motivated to exercise when I’m stressed or busy?
  9. Lifestyle Factors that Support Exercise for Stress Relief
    1. How does nutrition impact the stress-relieving effects of exercise?
    2. How much sleep do I need to get the benefits of exercise?
    3. Is there anything else I should do in addition to exercise?
    4. What if exercise stops relieving my feelings of stress?

Exercise for Coping with Stress

How Exercise Helps Alleviate Stress

The connection between exercise and stress relief may seem counterintuitive - after all, doesn't working out add more pressure to an already packed schedule? However, the benefits clearly outweigh the costs. Physical activity provides a host of scientifically-proven advantages when it comes to combating the negative effects of stress.

Reduces Muscle Tension

Stress triggers the body's sympathetic nervous system, preparing it for the "fight or flight" response. One result of this reaction is increased muscular tension as the body readies itself for action. Aerobic exercise in particular helps relieve this tension and return the muscles to a relaxed state. Activities like running, yoga, or tai chi loosen tight muscles and joints through movement. Adding regular stretching also increases overall flexibility.

Releases Endorphins

Exercise naturally increases levels of endorphins - "feel-good" chemicals produced in the brain that elevate mood. Activities that raise the heart rate for an extended period of time increase endorphin production. The flood of endorphins after intense exercise creates the well-known "runner's high". These natural mood boosters can help counteract the effects of cortisol and other stress hormones.

Lowers Blood Pressure

Blood pressure rises in response to stress as the heart works harder to circulate blood. Over time, chronic increased blood pressure can lead to heart disease. Cardiovascular exercise provides the benefits of strengthening the heart muscle and lowering blood pressure. As little as 30 minutes per day can make significant improvements in cardiovascular health.

Better Sleep

Stress and worry often lead to poor sleep quality. On the other hand, regular activity helps induce deeper sleep. Making time for exercise leads to falling asleep faster, staying asleep, and waking up feeling more rested. In turn, better sleep equates to better ability to handle day-to-day stress.

Suppresses Cortisol

Cortisol, the body's primary stress hormone, increases appetite and signals the body to store fat. Elevated cortisol levels from chronic stress contribute to weight gain and other problems. Exercise has been shown to decrease cortisol secretion after both acute and regular training. Less cortisol production benefits physical and mental health.

Boosts Resilience

Being resilient helps withstand and recover from stress. Along with enhancing cardiovascular health, strength training increases stamina and mental toughness. Feeling physically and mentally strong improves confidence in handling stressful situations as they arise. Having an established exercise routine also promotes discipline, determination, and focus.

Types of Exercise to Combat Stress

Certain forms of exercise are especially helpful for relieving stress. Incorporating these activities into weekly routines provides positive healthy habits. Having go-to workouts prevents procrastination and makes it easier to exercise consistently. Mixing up aerobic, strength training, flexibility, and mind-body exercises yields comprehensive benefits.


Any activity that significantly raises your heart rate provides aerobic exercise. Options like running, cycling, swimming, dance classes, and sports are excellent for stress relief. Aerobic exercise releases endorphins, improves cardiovascular health, enhances sleep, and lowers cortisol. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week.

Strength Training

In addition to aerobic training, strength exercises build muscle, burn additional calories, and boost resilience. Weight lifting, as well as bodyweight moves like planks and squats, provide mental health benefits. Alternate between upper and lower body as well as push/pull movements. For general health, aim for at least two strength sessions per week.


Activities focused on flexibility help relieve muscle tension from chronic stress. Yoga, Pilates, and focused stretching sessions increase range of motion. Incorporating dynamic stretches before and static stretches after workouts can also enhance flexibility. Even short daily stretching provides both physical and mental relaxation.


Exercises combining physical movement with a mental focus are especially effective for stress relief. Examples include yoga, tai chi, and qigong. The concentration required helps distract from worries and rumination. Deep breathing lowers heart rate and blood pressure. Being fully present and "in the moment" enhances mental calmness.

Tips for an Exercise Routine That Reduces Stress

Establishing regular exercise habits is the first step to making physical activity an automatic stress relief strategy. Finding enjoyment in workouts and building a consistent schedule both play key roles. Experiment with various activities, social support options, and other stress-busting techniques to create an exercise routine tailored to your needs.

Schedule Workouts

Planning specific days and times for exercise is essential for consistency. This prevents procrastination and ensures fitness becomes a part of your normal weekly schedule. Mix up the activities to prevent boredom. Arrange childcare or other logistics needed to protect workout times. View exercise appointments the same as other important commitments.

Try New Activities

Branch out from your default exercise routines to find new options you enjoy. Look for beginner classes focused on aerobics, martial arts, dance, crossfit, cycling and more. Join a recreational sports league. Buy a new piece of equipment like a bicycle, resistance bands, or fitness tracker. Having choices prevents your workout routine from becoming stale.

Exercise Outdoors

Exercising in natural settings provides extra stress relief benefits. Outdoor activities like hiking, kayaking, and running on trails incorporate the benefits of being in nature. Sunlight exposure and fresh air boost mental health. Just be sure to use sunscreen and proper safety precautions. If weather is an obstacle, consider an indoor cycling class with simulated outdoor scenery.

Find an Accountability Partner

Having someone to exercise with provides motivation on days when stress feels overwhelming. Friends, significant others, and co-workers make great workout partners. Joining a class or recreational sports team promotes accountability through commitment to the group. Having an exercise “buddy” means you can vent about stress while staying active.

Listen to Music

Adding motivating music energizes your workout while helping distract from stressful thoughts. Create playlists labeled by activity, such as “Power Yoga Flow” or “Spin Class”. Upbeat songs with positive lyrics typically work best. Syncing music to your stride or movements can also enhance the exercise experience.

Track Progress

Monitoring progress provides a sense of accomplishment. Measurements like workout duration, weight lifted, heart rate, or mileage quantify your improvements. Use apps, spreadsheets, or even handwritten logs. Seeing the increasing numbers reinforces the hard work you’ve put in. Recognizing increased fitness and strength serves as a reminder of the benefits.

Cool Down and Stretch

Allot time after aerobic activity for cooling down and stretching. Gradually reduce exercise intensity and allow heart rate to lower. Stretch all major muscle groups, holding for 30 seconds or more. This helps transition both the mind and body out of stress mode. Reflect on the positive impacts of the exercise just completed.

Know When To Take a Break

Listen to your mind and body, and take rest days when needed. Sleep, nutrition, and recovery time are essential too.432 Exercise should ultimately energize you and serve as a healthy outlet for stress relief. If fatigue, soreness, or mental overload sets in, do not hesitate to schedule a break. Even fitness professionals plan regular rest and recovery!

Establishing an Ongoing Exercise Habit

The most important factor for exercise to relieve stress is consistency. Here are key strategies for making physical activity an ongoing lifelong habit:

Start Small

For those new to regular exercise, start with manageable periods like 20-30 minutes per session 2-3 times weekly. This establishes the routine. Once exercise becomes a habit after a few weeks, gradually increase duration and frequency. Prevent burnout by slowly adding more activity rather than pushing too hard at first.

Schedule Ahead

Mark workout sessions on your calendar as you would any important appointment. Scheduling ahead of time increases the likelihood of following through rather than postponing. Plan at least 1-2 weeks in advance, mixing activities to create variety. Being organized also helps coordinate any needed childcare or transportation.

Make It Fun

Choose exercises you find enjoyable, whether it’s playing basketball, dancing to music videos, walking with a friend, or doing martial arts. Having fun reduces the perceived effort. This intrinsic motivation means you’ll look forward to your next workout. Focus on the mood boost, energy surge, and sense of accomplishment.

Allow Flexibility

Accept that unexpected schedule changes will sometimes interfere with exercise plans. Don’t beat yourself up or give up entirely if you miss sessions. Simply get back on track the next day without dwelling on missteps. Focus on the overall pattern of consistency rather than isolated lapses. Perfection is not required.

Track Successes

Make notes each week of workouts completed, distance covered, weights lifted, or other achievements. These visible markers of progress help motivate continued effort. Apps and wearable devices provide automated logging for many activities like runs, bike rides, and steps. Reviewing records of success inspires ongoing improvement.

Find Social Support

Exercising with others provides accountability, camaraderie, and encouragement to continue. Having family members and friends join you for workouts makes them social occasions. Join groups related to your favorite activities or take classes at fitness centers. Connecting exercise with fun social interactions ensures you look forward to it each week.

Summary: How Exercise Tackles Stress

In summary, exercise has a host of benefits that directly counteract the effects of stress, both mentally and physically. Aerobic workouts in particular release endorphins that boost mood. Cardiovascular training enhances heart health while lowering blood pressure. Strength training builds resilience and stamina for handling life's daily obstacles. Added flexibility helps relieve muscular tension. Mind-body practices facilitate mindfulness.

Establishing regular exercise habits is essential to manage stress. Scheduling workouts, finding accountability partners, tracking progress, and making fitness fun are key strategies to ensure consistency. Mixing up activities, exercising outdoors, listening to motivating music, and cooling down properly help make each session more rewarding.

By implementing a regular exercise routine tailored to your needs and fitness level, it is possible to offset the toll stress takes on your body. Instead of amplifying anxiety or depression, exercise serves as a healthy outlet for coping with demanding issues and pressures. The focus and determination needed to maintain an exercise habit also provide a sense of empowerment and control. Overall, being regularly physically active provides a long-lasting approach to improving mental health and building resilience to life’s inevitable stressors.

Frequently Asked Questions About Using Exercise to Manage Stress

Getting Started with Exercise to Relieve Stress

What types of exercise are best for stress relief?

The most effective types of exercise for managing stress are aerobic activities like walking, jogging, running, cycling, swimming, dance classes, and sports. Aerobic exercise releases endorphins, improves mood, enhances sleep, and lowers blood pressure. Aim for at least 150 minutes per week. Adding strength training, flexibility exercises, and mind-body practices provides additional benefits.

How often should I exercise to combat stress?

Experts recommend at least 150 minutes per week of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous activity. Spread this over 3-5 days for the best stress relief. Taking 1-2 rest days allows muscles to recover. Even short 10-15 minute sessions can help on ultra busy days.

How strenuous does exercise for stress management need to be?

Any physical activity, even light exercise, can alleviate stress. The key is staying active consistently. Challenge yourself enough to increase breathing and get the heart pumping, but don't overdo it. Low to moderate intensity is fine, especially when getting started. Work up slowly to vigorous activity levels for maximum benefits.

What if I have an injury or mobility limitations?

Choose low-impact activities like walking, swimming, or exercise machines. Avoid high intensity intervals or plyometrics. Adapt exercises based on ability, avoiding movements that cause pain. Consider physical therapy to improve strength and mobility. Water aerobics takes pressure off joints. Do what you can comfortably and consult a doctor if needed.

Maximizing the Anti-Stress Effects of Exercise

Should I exercise in the morning or evening for stress relief?

It depends on your personal preference. Exercising early can boost energy and mood all day. However, evening workouts may be better for relieving tension from the day. Try each option to see what feels right. Consistency is most important, whenever fits your schedule. Just avoid vigorous activity too close to bedtime, as it can interfere with sleep.

How soon before or after a stressful event should I exercise?

Try to exercise daily as prevention rather than reactively after a stressful situation. However, working out shortly after an acute stress episode provides immediate relief by lowering cortisol and releasing endorphins. Even 10-15 minutes of activity helps if time is limited. Just be cautious exercising if emotions are extremely intense.

Should I exercise outdoors or indoors to reduce stress?

Mixing outdoor and indoor workouts is ideal. Exercising outdoors provides extra benefits like sunlight, fresh air, and the sounds/sights of nature. However, indoor activities allow for more flexibility in bad weather. Variety also prevents boredom. If outdoors, take proper safety precautions like sunscreen, visibility gear, and sharing route details.

How can I stay motivated to exercise when I’m stressed or busy?

Schedule exercise like any other appointment, build rewards into goals, find accountability partners, mix up your routine, put on fun music, or join group classes. Reframe thoughts from "I have to exercise" to "I get to exercise" - focus on it as a break and act of self-care. Be flexible on days when life gets in the way. Do some activity, even if brief, to maintain the habit.

Lifestyle Factors that Support Exercise for Stress Relief

How does nutrition impact the stress-relieving effects of exercise?

Eating a balanced diet fuels exercise performance and enhances recovery. Complex carbs provide energy for working out. Lean protein aids muscle building and repair. Healthy fats support brain function. Avoiding excess caffeine and sugar prevents crashes. Stay hydrated before, during, and after exercise. Managing stress through diet is also important - limit alcohol, salty foods, and overeating.

How much sleep do I need to get the benefits of exercise?

Experts recommend adults get 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Quality sleep allows the body to adapt to the stress of exercise and recover. Consistent sleep-wake cycles support circadian rhythms. Allow enough wind-down time before bed after evening workouts. Physical activity helps improve sleep quality, creating a positive cycle. Prioritize both regular exercise and enough sleep.

Is there anything else I should do in addition to exercise?

While exercise is highly effective for stress management, building other healthy habits provides additional benefits. This includes eating nutritious whole foods, getting adequate sleep, avoiding substances, practicing mindfulness, making time for hobbies and social connection, and learning organizational skills. Taking active breaks throughout the day also helps, like walking meetings or doing desk stretches.

What if exercise stops relieving my feelings of stress?

If exercise ceases to provide a stress relief benefit, make sure other wellness fundamentals like sleep, nutrition and social support are in place. Vary your workouts if boredom has set in. Consider working with a personal trainer or taking new classes. Address whether other life factors could be worsening your experience of stress. Seek help from a counselor or doctor if stress becomes unmanageable through lifestyle approaches alone.

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