How Exercising and Resting Your Mind Can Help You Cope With Stress

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By Jim Duncan, MA

Is stress keeping you down, exhausted, anxious, or depressed? Research shows us that, to cope with stress, exercise might be the answer!

It is just as important to take care of your body as it is to take care of your mind, and studies repeatedly demonstrate the important links between physical fitness and mental health.

If you are feeling out of shape or overwhelmed by stressors in your life, exercise may be the solution to both problems.

Here’s how exercising and resting your mind can help you cope with stress.

Physiological Factors

There is a natural, biological reason stress affects us so negatively. The brain is impacted when our minds begin to experience stress and sends signals to other body parts. Stress can make our muscles tense and our breathing shallow or irregular, while also impacting our sleep cycles and lowering our alertness and concentration.

When the effects of stress hit the body, we can feel powerless to stop them. But, just as our bodies are designed to chemically feel stress, they are also designed to fight against it. When chemicals called endorphins are released by our brains, we naturally feel more positive. Endorphins act as our body’s natural painkillers and can even produce a euphoric sensation.

Two Birds, One Stone

Exercising is one of the easiest ways to trigger endorphin production in the brain.  Studies have shown that those who exercise regularly live generally lower-stress lives than those who do not. And, with the countless benefits of exercise, it is not hard to see why!

When we exercise, most of our focus shifts to the task at hand. Physical activities such as walking, running, biking, swimming, hiking, climbing, or dancing require coordination and concentration. While our minds still wander during exercise, we must devote a moderate amount of mental energy to the motions and movements mandated by the activity.

Therefore, it is impossible to run, bike, swim, or hike while balancing the checkbook, writing data reports for work, sitting in on office meetings, tending to our small children, or any of the many other stressful tasks in our lives.

Exercise gives us a very tangible break from the things that are stressing our minds and allows for mental rest—all while engaging our bodies and improving our health. And moving our muscles while resting our minds is a very effective strategy against feelings of overwhelming stress.

Benefits of Exercise to Cope with Stress

While we understand that exercise physiologically improves our chances of fighting stress, the benefits of exercise can also be found more immediately on the surface. We don’t need to know the science behind endorphins to know that exercise simply helps us feel good.

It’s motivating enough to know that exercise can improve our moods and help us cope with stress nearly instantaneously.

Some of the greatest benefits of exercise include:

  • Deeper and better sleep

  • Increased self-esteem and self-confidence

  • Boosted energy levels

  • More positive outlook and attitude

  • Decreased feelings of depression and anxiety

  • Better bodily function and overall physical health

  • Mental clarity

Stress has a way of convincing us that we do not have time or energy to devote to exercising. The truth is, however, we cannot afford to not exercise. Feelings of stress, depression, anxiety, and worthlessness can be significantly decreased through regular exercise. With consistent physical activity, our moods are better, and our minds are calmer.

Exercise is one of the most effective tools against stress, and it is both completely free and widely available. If you want to improve your health and free your mind, begin incorporating exercise into your routine to cope with stress.

Moderate exercise that is done most days of the week is best, but any movement is better than none! However, always consult your physician before starting any new exercise program. Good luck and good health! 

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Jim Duncan, MA, LPC Intern, works with couples and individuals at the Relationship Counseling Center of Austin. As a Certified Personal Trainer, Jim has a unique understanding of the link between physical fitness and mental health, and incorporates this when working with clients who may be experiencing stress in their lives. To schedule a session with Jim, call him at (512) 270-4883, ext. 117, or request an appointment online through the RCC Austin Scheduling page.