Exercise and Stress – Can exercising reduce stress and improve mood?

Brain exercise

Whenever we ask people what activities or groups of activities improve the mood we invariably get a consensus that exercise is very beneficial. It seems that almost as many people feel that exercises is just as good for mental health as it is for physical health. But is it true?
Superficially we can quickly suggest, without too much fear of being challenged, that people who exercise more seem to have lower rates of anxiety and or depression than non-exercisers. Equally superficially we can suggest the release of endorphins that occurs in and after exercise is the super hero of our story but is there more to this than the aforementioned popular notion? As well as examining what effects exercise has on stress, we also intend to take a quick look at what effects stress has on exercise – there are two sides to every coin.

Brain exercise 2

A very interesting page on the website of the APA questions the endorphins link or at least the level of effectiveness endorphins can have on stress. The brief article posits that norepinephrine (noradrenaline to our UK visitors) might be the actual big player in stress management in exercisers. It appears that norepinephrine plays a major role in regulating other neurotransmitters associated with stress. Venlafaxine, a fairly modern antidepressant medication is one of a family of drugs that alter the interaction of norepinephrine in our dopamine pathways. The same APA article also begs the question of simple biological improvements occurring in exercise that may steady the ship in times of stress. When we exercise, a myriad of systems have to engage with each other and this increased interplay and communication between the systems proves useful when the going gets tough whether that be physical or psychological.

It is also possible that exercise reduces levels of stress chemicals such as cortisol and adrenaline in our bodies. Cortisol is typically released during ‘bad’ events and is responsible for much of that pent up feeling when we become upset. Cortisol frequently courses around the blood stream for about an hour but two hours is not unknown. If exercise can mitigate against this then bring it on. This leads to another psychological factor – if we get less cortisol surging through us during stressful events we will start to view stress very differently as its effects reduce leaving us less concerned about more difficult moments.

There are some other quite simple reasons for exercise improving our psychological resilience. If we look better we simply feel better and our self-esteem is higher. If our esteem is higher we view the world very differently to those with lower self-esteem. Tricky events seem to be of a smaller magnitude if we have a healthy self-esteem.

The other side of our coin is how stress or mood issues can affect our exercising. As people experience a lowering of their mood they usually notice that their motivation reduces and reduces quickly. It is not unusual for these same people to suddenly find themselves disengaging from pleasure giving activities and activities which promote their own health and wellbeing. Exercise takes a lot of effort and is easily moved aside from one’s activity schedule when low mood gets a grip. But many studies also clearly highlight that stress specifically causes reduction in physical exercise. The types of stress aren’t always the same either and can include the stress felt by people experiencing critical events in their lives such as final exams or chronic stress situations such as caring for sick relatives. Looking a little deeper however does slightly change the picture. It seems that casual exercisers or those new to a regime are far more likely to quit their exercising than habitual exercisers who showed some greater resilience to the effects of the stress. As for depression, studies including The Antidepressive Effects of Exercise: a meta-analysis of randomized trials by Rethorst and colleagues, show convincing evidence for the benefits of exercise on the mood.


In summary, exercise is great for building some resilience to stress and mood issues and can be great, if we can get ourselves moving, for getting out of psychological issues. It is important though to ensure you begin with a regime that you will succeed at, as building on successes is vitally important. It helps no one if you set yourself an exercise target and then fail to reach it.

You might be best to start with something slow and easy, building to greater intensity gradually. Has there ever been an exercise or sport that you really enjoyed and for some reason no longer do? Maybe you could pick this up again.

We would also suggest that repeated exercise or a regime that includes frequent activity is more beneficial than the occasional burst of high intensity movement.

It is important that some physical demands are placed on the body for exercise to be effective but no one has to be running marathons to reap some very real benefits. Maybe that’s the cue for a fast walk with the dog.

Brain exercise 3

The comments section below is for you to share your wisdom, experience or to ask a question. Please feel free to use it.

7 thoughts on “Exercise and Stress – Can exercising reduce stress and improve mood?

  1. I agree with you on how exercise can help make you feel better. It is true that it’s hard to start doing exercises when stress already got hold of you. That’s why I believe the best time to start doing it is early in the morning when the mind’s still fresh and not as stressed as later in the day. Great post, thanks for sharing!

  2. Fantastic article. There are so many things that we still do not understand about the effects of exercise stress, though exercise definitely seems like it can help with it. I can relate to feeling less motivated to work out when I am stressed. I have found that I can at least get something done if I challenge myself to do something for just 5 minutes (and I usually notice a difference).

  3. I feel so much better when i am regularly exercising. It is difficult when you are feeling low to motivate yourself but if you can just push yourself to make that step then you feel so much better.
    If i’m feeling stressed or anxious and i keep up my exercise regime, i find that it soon passes. I tend to do a mixture of gentle walking, spin, boxing and weights. If i’m feeling really rubbish, i try and ensure i do a walk every night and remember to look around and see the beauty around me.

  4. I very much like this article. As a trainer I see many clients who do have stressful jobs and when they come to see me they are in a stressful mood. But after an hour of exercising they feel totally better both physically and mentally.

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