What Is The Exercise-Stress Paradox, and Could It Be Affecting You?

Want to run to relieve stress, but you’re too stressed to do it? You’re not alone, a new study suggests.

  • If exercise helps you relieve stress, but the thought of going for a run or doing a workout makes you feel overwhelmed, new research shows you’re not alone.
  • This is called the “exercise-stress paradox,” and it’s become increasingly common during the pandemic due to its effects on mental health.
  • Some activity is better than none, but it’s important to be compassionate toward yourself if you’re feeling this way.

There’s a deluge of research connecting exercise with lower rates of depression, anxiety, and stress—but maybe the thought of going for a run or doing a workout makes you feel overwhelmed. Welcome to the club.

That’s called the “exercise-stress paradox,” and right now, it’s more ferocious than ever, according to new research in the journal PLOS ONE.

Researchers surveyed nearly 1,700 people and asked about physical activity, sedentary behavior, barriers to exercise, and how all of that may be different during COVID-19 compared to pre-pandemic days.

The majority of people were unmotivated to exercise because they were too anxious. For those who have managed to stay active, they reported being more motivated by mental health outcomes like anxiety relief versus physical outcomes like weight loss or strength gains. Many reported sitting an average of 30 minutes more per day and exercising one hour less per week during the pandemic than they did before it. More than half of respondents reported worse mental health since the onset of COVID-19.

The trick is in getting the unmotivated shifted toward activity as a way to improve their stress, according to the study’s lead author, Jennifer Heisz, Ph.D., associate professor in the department of kinesiology at McMaster University. She told Bicycling the same association was true for depression—respondents seemed aware that exercise could help with symptoms, but their depression made them less motivated to get active.

What needs to be addressed, she said, are the reasons why this happens. Researchers found that perceived barriers included lack of social support, not enough time, and less access to facilities and equipment.

However, Heisz said, the pandemic has given many people more free time thanks to working from home or lack of travel or other activities. That might actually exacerbate the problem, since you may have more time but less motivation to go for a run, causing you to feel discouraged.

“We think the messaging needs to be really compassionate around this,” Heisz said. “The intention is not to add any more stress or guilt to people’s lives right now.”

In response to the findings, the researchers built a free evidence-based toolkit that includes advice that may give you the nudge you need. For example, it emphasizes that lower-intensity exercise can help if you’re feeling anxious, as can planning your workouts like appointments by blocking off the time in your calendar.

“The main message here is that some activity is better than none,” Heisz said. “Just move a little more every day.”

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