The connection between exercise and stress can turn your mind into a battlefield.
The research, physiology, and your past experiences all agree. A run or CrossFit class can soften the mental load, make a gloomy day a tad brighter (thanks, endorphins!), and even motivate you!
But … life always manages to get in the way.
The defeating work-school-relationship combo sways you in the opposite direction. Lacing up your Nikes, loading the barbell, or hitting the treadmill are more mental challenges than anything.
It pits the same-old internal war: “I know it’s good for me and will help me feel better. But I can’t find it in me to take that first step.”
Maybe the research will do the trick and offer that final motivational nudge. Gains aside, here are 11 exercise and stress statistics to prove once and for all its benefits for the mind.
General Stress Statistics
- A stunning 70% of American adults suffer from daily anxiety or stress that impacts their lives in one way or another.
- Of all teenage health concerns, stress ranks #1.
- One in three people experiences “extreme” stress, with 48% admitting their stress has worsened in the last five years and with 73% experiencing psychological symptoms.
- Some 77% of those battling stress will also experience physical symptoms.
The Worst Stress Culprits
If you’re like most of us (AKA: even mildly “human”), you’ll experience sleepless nights, nagging migraines, or achy muscles — all caused by stress — at least once a week.
But what’s causing our skyrocketing stress rates as a nation, where seven in ten adults tread through life-altering stress or anxiety daily?
Here are the five worst stress-inducing culprits (as of 2017):
- The future of our nation (63%)
- Money (62%)
- Work (61%)
- The ongoing political climate (57%)
- Violence and crime (51%)
Intriguingly, three of the five (arguably four) are mostly out of our control. These common stressors also seem to follow a common theme: A fear of the unknown.
The logical advice of “don’t fret about things you cannot change” is far easier said than done.
That’s especially true while you and your family are staring uncertainty dead in the face and know there’s little you can do to change your fate or escape what’s bound to happen.
Common Physical & Psychological Stress Symptoms
Feel queasy? Maybe you accidentally ate rancid meat at that new deli. A little tired? Blame allergies. Achy? The microtears from your last powerlifting sessions haven’t worn off yet.
… or, maybe it’s stress.
Stress can throw nearly every single body system off balance and cause unexpected physical and psychological symptoms. The ten most common include:
- Fatigue (51%)
- Anger or irritability (50%)
- Nervousness (45%)
- Low energy (45%)
- Headache (44%)
- Reaching the point of crying (35%)
- Upset stomach (34%)
- Muscle pain or tension (30%)
- Appetite changes (23%)
- Teeth-grinding (17%)
Informative, yes, but it begs the question: How do you know whether your fatigue, low appetite, or anger is stress-related or something else entirely?
Easy; start a stress journal to put a date and time to your stressors and jot down your symptoms. If the stomach butterflies return before every 10 a.m. lecture, you’ve discovered your answer!
Learn what makes your mind tick and select a coping mechanism that works best for you (hell, even if it’s not exercise).
Teens vs. Stress: A Never-Ending War
Being a teenager in today’s world is harder than ever.
Before the cynic in you starts with, “Well, back in my day … [unsolicited facts about how you held down three jobs, bought a house at 20, and paid for college in full],” think about today’s stressors:
- 20% of teens are bullied, and the torment doesn’t end at the 2 p.m. bell (cyberbullying)
- 69% worry about getting into college, and tuition is now up three-fold since 2001
- High school age teens complete 15+ hours of homework a week
- 30% hold down a job, 55.5% play a sport, and 28% are in a club
- Half try drugs and alcohol at least once (temptation before the frontal lobe develops)
- 27.7% enroll in at least one AP class during high school
- Teens spend some 7 hours and 22 minutes on their phones a day (constant exposure)
Not to mention every test score, homework assignment, and standardized test score impacts their class rank and GPA (both the “key” to a college career).
Be a skeptic if you must. But juggling all of these “adult worries” while you’re 14, learning who you are, building relationships, and undergoing hormonal changes is no easy feat.
Exercise and Stress Relief Benefits
5. The Anxiety & Depression Association of America reports exercise as one of the most popular coping mechanisms (14%), on par with watching TV and listening to tunes.
6. Exercise’s brain-boosting benefits can cut anxiety and stress risks by a shocking 40%.
7. More than half (53%) of adults and teens feel better about themselves post-exercise.
8. Physical activity is also a natural mood-elevator, with 35% attributing it to their good mood.
9. Three in ten adults suggest that exercise reduces their stress levels.
Gym Closed? Other Stress Relief Methods to Try
Exercise can work miracles (not literally) after a day filled with the trifecta: Stress, stress, and more stress.
A 30-minute lifting session (or jog) can secure your daily dose of artificial happiness, scrape some mental stress from your overflowing plate, and refocus your sights on what matters.
Sometimes, a bike ride is all it takes to shift your mindset from “I’ll never finish this project” to “Okay, let’s try a new strategy and get this done by the weekend!”
But if you’re still recovering from sore muscles or the gym closes too soon (how dare they?), your stress relief doesn’t have to take the backburner.
Try these alternative methods instead:
- Meditation or deep breathing
- Read a book, watch a flick, or listen to music (direct your mind elsewhere)
- Go for a walk (bonus points if it’s at a park with the sights, sounds, and smells of nature)
- Stretch or do yoga
- Do something that makes you happy
- Get a massage
- Clean the house
Of course, resist the urge to cope with unhealthy stress-relieving tactics, like drugs or alcohol. The short-term “escape” isn’t worth the hangover, anxiety/depression, and loss of money.
Stress Affecting Exercise and Physical Activity
10. Despite its mood-boosting and stress-relief benefits, nearly 40% of adults canceled their exercise plans due to stress within the last 30 days.
11. Stress symptoms (emotional and physical) jumped between 2007 and 2008, with about 50% of respondents confessing a higher stress load since the previous year.
Stress Overload: How to Find Motivation to Exercise
That workout can soothe that overwhelming stress overload that’s ruining your mood. But the stress is so overpowering that you’re debating whether or not to squeeze in a workout at all.
How do you win that stalemate — you vs. you?
You don’t; you learn to befriend your enemy (the stress). When the stress becomes almost deafening, look for any motivation to work out and edge your way out of stress’s chokehold:
- Exercise at home instead of lugging yourself to the gym
- Split your workout into more manageable sections (a 30-minute workout divided into 10-minute parts)
- Multi-task as a last-resort (write a report while on the treadmill, listen to textbook audio)
- Track your progress to encourage further success
- Turn off your phone notifications as you exercise
- Work out first thing in the morning and dedicate the rest of your time to responsibilities
As challenging as it sounds, be gentle on yourself. It’s okay to skip a workout every now and then, and you don’t owe anyone else an explanation for why you didn’t attend that 8 a.m. group class.
Always put your mental health first, and get back on track tomorrow!
How Does Exercise Reduce Stress?
Exercise topples the body’s chemical “status quo” (yes, to your benefit!).
It slashes cortisol and adrenaline levels, the stress hormones that keep you “on edge” and in fight-or-flight mode — the natural response to a car collision, except 24/7.
Exercise also releases endorphins, dubbed the “feel-good hormone” due to its morphine-like, mood-boosting effects responsible for the classic runner’s high.
Can Stress Affect Your Workout?
The mental turmoil triggered by stress doesn’t wait patiently at the gym door as you pump iron. Stress can destroy an otherwise productive workout, with its consequences extending three-fold:
- Low motivation (“I don’t really want to be here”)
- Suffering technique (“Let’s just get these last few sets over with so I can leave”)
- Mental distraction (“Is that report due tomorrow?”)
Does Running Reduce Stress?
Exercise’s mood-elevating and stress-relieving benefits don’t discriminate.
As long as your blood is pumping harder, your breathing is heavier, and your limbs are moving quicker than usual, any exercise type will reduce stress levels — including running.
Other alternatives include aerobics, yoga, sports, swimming, biking, dancing, and weightlifting.
The jury is back, and their verdict is no surprise!
Regular exercise can help you sculpt a lean physique (jacked, ripped, what have you), de-cloud the negative thoughts and emotions in your mind, and threaten stress’s death grip on your life.
Now, it’s your turn.
Craft a game plan to outline how you’ll overcome the naysayers (in this case, your own mind) to reap these stress-reducing benefits yourself.
Here’s some advice.
Start small and begin slow.
Set a goal to exercise 1-2 times per week or for 15 minutes (something manageable). That way, you can experience the pride (“I did it!”) and taste those sweet, sweet endorphins (not literally).
Every little victory will build your confidence and guide you toward your end goal. If the stress is so debilitating that even the simplest tasks are near-impossible, don’t overlook professional help.
Exercise is a useful stress-relieving tool, but it’s no cure.