Working out has been touted as a tension-busting strategy many times. Here’s why it’s true.
Feeling overwhelmed and stressed lately? You’re certainly not alone. Plenty of research is emerging about how the past couple months are driving anxiety and stress toward record levels.
For example, in an April Gallup poll, the percentage of U.S. adults who reported they are “thriving” has dropped to 48 percent—the lowest level since the Great Recession in 2008. The number of U.S. adults experiencing significant stress and worry on a daily basis has also risen significantly, to 60 percent, researchers report.
There are numerous techniques that can help you relax, from deep breathing to telehealth therapy sessions, but one major way you can tame the stress dragon is through exercise, research has noted.
Working out has been touted as a tension-busting strategy many times—here’s a look at four evidence-based reasons why heading out for a run, doing some yoga, or hitting the weights truly may be the ultimate stress hack.
1. Better Sleep
The connection between regular exercise and quality sleep is a strong one. According to a study in Mental Health and Physical Activity, those who were active fell asleep faster and felt less sleepy during the day, thanks to getting adequate sleep throughout the night.
With deeper, uninterrupted sleep, you’re able to reduce levels of cortisol, the hormone most related to the stress response, according to W. Christopher Winter, M.D., president of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine and author of The Sleep Solution.
As your cortisol lowers in the evening, that allows melatonin—the hormone that induces drowsiness and keeps you on a solid sleep-wake cycle—to surge. Exercise can help get you on this schedule, Winter says, and with consistency in both workouts and sleep habits, it often leads to more deeper, more quality sleep—which has an impact on your emotional health throughout the day.
“Sleep also allows us to react to situations more rationally and with more appropriate emotion,” he tells Bicycling. “It also allows us to understand situations more fully and with better emotional responses.”
2. Regulated Hormones
The cortisol-melatonin balance isn’t just for sleep quality. Having a chronically elevated cortisol level—which can happen with ongoing stress, anxiety, and perceived threats—comes with all kinds of problems.
“High cortisol levels wreak havoc over time, deplete your happy brain chemicals like serotonin, rob your sleep, and make you store fat—especially in your belly,” Sara Gottfried, M.D., author of The Hormone Cure, tells Bicycling. “High cortisol is likewise linked to depression, food addiction, and sugar cravings, as well as lowered resiliency.”
Exercise does tend to temporarily increase circulating levels of cortisol, since the body sees high-intensity activity as a stressor, but balancing that out with adequate recovery time can create better regulation, Gottfried says.
3. Improved Gut Function
There’s been a significant amount of research about the role of your gastrointestinal system in regulating emotions, energy, immunity, and even skin health and chronic disease. All that good and bad bacteria in your digestive tract is central to your health, according to Jo Ann Hattner, R.D., and coauthor of Gut Insight.
“A healthy gut makes a healthy body,” she tells Bicycling. “That includes a better stress response, because the gut microbiome helps regulate central nervous system function and supplies most of the body’s serotonin, the neurotransmitter most responsible for feelings of wellbeing.”
You could see this one coming: A major contributor to a happy gut is exercise. A research review in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity highlighting the protective and metabolic functions of the gut microbiota found that exercise is beneficial in numerous ways, including energy regulation. Another study, done on rugby players, found that exercise created more diversity in gut bacteria, which has been linked to increased health overall.
4. Lower Inflammation
Chronic inflammation has been implicated in a range of health issues, from dementia to allergies.
A study in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience suggested that excessive inflammation plays a critical role in creating a stress response, and the connection goes both ways—high levels of stress can also induce more inflammation.
ycle and create anti-inflammatory effects, according to a study in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. Plus, it doesn’t take much, that research noted—just a single session of walking 20 minutes on a treadmill was enough to trigger a cascade of reactions that lowered participant inflammation levels.
In addition to better regulation of cortisol, higher levels of happy chemicals, and lower inflammation, research also suggests exercise can prompt over good-for-you habits, like eating more healthfully and maintaining social connections.
So, if you’re feeling frazzled and overwhelmed—whether that’s being driven by pandemic issues, civil unrest, or simply life—consider upping your daily exercise, either with an easy run or your favorite cross-training options. You’ll be glad you did.