How to deal with stress through exercise

There’s strong evidence to suggest that staying active helps us cope with stress - and as the cost of living rises, so does the prevalence of burnout. Exercise and other techniques can help deal with signs of stress while you get to the root of the problem

Nearly a quarter of people surveyed by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said it is currently difficult or very difficult to pay bills compared with the same month last year, and more than half predict they won't be able to pay bills at all within the next few months.

The UK mental health charity Mind highlights that while stress might manifest as anger, irritability or feeling overwhelmed, it might also leave you feeling unable to enjoy yourself, worried you've lost your sense of humour, or even lonely.

Physical symptoms of stress

Physical symptoms can also signal high stress levels. These include gut and skin problems, chest pain, and headaches. Mind's checklist of behaviours related to stress - including poor concentration and memory, nail-biting and skin picking, and feeling tearful - can also be helpful to know.

How does exercise aid stress relief

NICE, the UK body for health guidance and advice, recommends that adults should do 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week (eg brisk walking), or 75 minutes of 'vigorous' exercise a week (eg walking) or a mix, or more.

The UK Chief Medical Officers' guidelines list managing stress, improved sleep and better social interaction as key benefits of exercise. Evidence also demonstrates that even small amounts of physical activity can provide overall health benefits.

A rapid evidence review by Sport England in 2017 detailed evidence that exercise has been shown to improve:

  • Life satisfaction, especially after social interaction.
  • The view we have of ourselves ('self-concept').
  • Self-esteem and confidence, especially after learning a new skill.
  • Resilience, sense of self-worth and self-control.
  • Growth of positive relationships.

How does exercise reduce stress?

Stress is a form of threat, and under threat the body releases cortisol and adrenaline to prepare to react. Exercise 'hijacks' or alleviates this process.

Dr Josephine Perry is a chartered psychologist and has just co-written the audiobook Power Down to Power Up.

"Adrenaline and cortisol make us feel really rubbish," Dr Perry explains. "Heart rate goes up, breathing rate goes up, we get stomach problems, we get very tight shoulders and back muscles, and we may even lose some of our peripheral vision.

"But when we're exercising, the exercise almost 'takes over' from that in our body, so we might then start to relax a little bit. We'll start to notice what's going on around us and our hearing will pick up. Heart rate and breathing rate will be up, but they'll be up because we're exercising. So, it feels like it dissipates some of those chemicals that are unhelpfully flooding our body.

In Power Up to Power Down, Dr Perry recommends that listeners 'identify their threat zone'. "When we feel under threat, and those chemicals flood our body, each of us tends to have one area of our body where we feel it most," she says. "Mine is the bottom right-hand corner of my stomach, it will literally start throbbing. Often when it starts throbbing, I'm not really aware what I'm anxious about. I'll look at my diary and notice I've got a really big speech to give, but I won't have practised properly."

It's like a nice early warning system that the body's giving us. Identifying where in the body you feel stress gives us a good opportunity to realise, "I need to get some exercise, think through this problem and get on top of it before it becomes actually stressful."

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Stress and sleep

Sleep can make a huge difference to stress, but naturally it's one of the first things we lose. A systematic review in 2017 found 29 studies that showed exercise improves sleep quality or duration, although four found no difference and one reported a negative impact - authors suggested that the relationship might not be so strong for younger people.

Breathing techniques are a common approach to rumination at night-time and Dr Perry's audio book includes one called 'colourful breathing', which she sometimes uses with her five-year-old. Other techniques such as breathing with counting or box breathing may also be worth a try.

Stress and burnout

Although burnout's been recognised by the World Health Organization and is classed as a major problem for professions like healthcare, it's still viewed with cynicism. Dr Perry notes that she sees a lot of clients with burnout, particularly since the pandemic as isolation and a sense of responsibility shot up.

"Burnout doesn't sound like a real thing," she says. "It sounds a bit like one of those middle-class diseases that we hear people kind of joking about, but it's horrible when you're in the middle of it. It is really tricky because it is felt by high achievers, who are used to doing more and working harder in order to find their way out of problems. Unfortunately, when you've got burnout, doing that is like digging yourself into a deeper and deeper hole. Techniques you would often use to handle stress, like exercise or seeing people, are also digging deeper and deeper.

"People with burnout really struggle to stop and recover, so they sometimes get to a point where they have no choice. I've spoken to people in the past who've not been able to get out of bed for weeks at a time. Your body just shuts down when you have done too much for too long. The earlier you can notice and deal with it, the more important that can be."

Dr Perry advises people experiencing high stress to build up a toolkit of coping mechanisms.

For example, she might ask a client to pick from a wheel of common emotions like being OK, angry, or frustrated, then introduce a bigger wheel of more specific emotions to name what the client experiences regularly. (You can try this yourself using feelingswheel.com). Dr Perry then helps the client list what coping mechanisms they use now, how well they work, and what else they could try - for example, drinking less (or no) alcohol because of its effect on sleep.

Dr Perry warns that techniques people would often use to handle stress, including exercise, tend not to work on their own. In her experience, she adds that whether because of financial, professional, or personal reasons, people with burnout might also struggle to stop work and make time to relax and recover. In this respect, it's important not to rely on exercise on its own to resolve chronic stress, burnout or moderate to severe mental health problems.

Exercise and mastery

As Mind says, stress can have a corrosive effect on our ability to concentrate, think clearly, regulate our feelings, and enjoy ourselves. By contrast, Dr Perry says, exercise reminds us of our competencies.

"It shows we are capable of things," she says. "When we pick the right exercise for us - something we feel good at, something we feel masterful at - then it reminds us we are capable. It gives us that perspective again, to see that we can tackle other things."

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