What would life be without a little stress to keep us on our toes and help us appreciate the good times? However, too much stress is harmful to mental and physical health. At the very least, we need solid ways to manage stress because much of the damage stress does to our bodies is because we’d don’t have resources for managing it. As with most things in life, it’s our perception of stressful events that determines how we react and respond. That’s why activities like mindfulness are effective. It teaches us to observe what’s happening without judgment.
Despite being uncomfortable, acute, short-term stress is unlikely to cause long-term damage. For example, if you step down off a curb into the street when a car’s coming, your heart will race for a short period, but it won’t do irreparable damage unless you get hit! But long-term, poorly controlled stress is a different matter. Studies show chronic stress increases the odds of developing chronic health problems like cardiovascular disease, stroke, anxiety, and depression. Therefore, we need ways to manage long-term or persistent stress.
We know that mind-body exercises like yoga and meditation can aid in stress management. Exercise also is a stress fighter that calms the mind. You think of a relaxing walk as an exercise that brings about calm, but what about high-intensity exercise? A vigorous workout “pumps you up” and it might seem like that’s not what you want if you’re already stressed, fearful, or anxious. What does science say about stress, anxiety, and intense exercise?
High-Intensity Exercise for Stress and Anxiety
What happens when you do a HIIT workout? Do you feel calmer afterward? At the very least, you’re relieved that it’s over! However, research carried out by researchers at the University of Missouri at Columbia looked at the impact of moderate and high-intensity exercise on anxiety. The participants were female and varied in age from 18 to 45. Before beginning the study, the researchers measured the participants’ level of anxiety to determine how stressed and anxious they felt at baseline. Then, the subjects worked out for 33 minutes. One group exercised at a moderate intensity, another did high-intensity exercise, and the third did no exercise, serving as a control group. Afterward, they measured their anxiety levels at 5, 30, 60, and 90 minutes.
The results? Anxiety levels were the same between the groups who exercised at a moderate intensity and high intensity right after the workouts. At the five-minute point, neither form of exercise was superior for anxiety reduction. However, differences emerge at 30, 60, and 90 minutes. The females who exercised vigorously enjoyed greater improvements in symptoms of anxiety and stress. Age was a factor too. The impact of exercise on anxiety symptoms was greatest in women between the ages of 31 and 45 relative to the younger participants.
By now, you might be wondering how and why high-intensity exercise might ease anxiety, and science has explored this issue. In one study, researchers used magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) to measure the levels of brain chemicals after a workout. They found two key neurotransmitters called GABA and glutamate were higher after a workout and remained elevated for around 30 minutes after the sweat session was over. In contrast, subjects who didn’t exercise didn’t experience elevations in these neurotransmitters. Research links low levels of glutamate and GABA in the brain with mental health issues like depression.
However, this doesn’t explain why vigorous exercise eases anxiety. It’s possible that high-intensity exercise stimulates the release of other mood-altering brain chemicals. We know that moderate to high-intensity exercise boosts the release of brain-calming chemicals called endorphins that help ease pain and reduce anxiety. That’s one reason a heart-pumping workout feels so good!
Other Forms of Exercise that Reduce Anxiety
While high-intensity workouts can banish stress and relieve anxiety, based on the study, lower-intensity workouts, like yoga, do too. In fact, yoga workouts seem tailor-made for stress reduction. Some studies show that yoga poses lower blood pressure and heart rate by reducing the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, the so-called “fight or flight” component of the autonomic nervous system that hypes you up and makes us feel anxious and fearful.
Plus, some research shows yoga and meditation can reduce the stress hormone cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal glands near the kidneys in response to stress. In fact, a 10-week study found that yoga was more effective than relaxation for improving mental health and was as effective as relaxation for reducing anxiety. Plus, yoga practice is a mindfulness practice that helps keep our minds focus on the moment rather than worrying about the past or future.
Studies also show that people who are chronically stressed out or anxious are more sensitive to pain. An anxious or stressed out individual has a nervous system in overdrive, making them more susceptible to stimulation, including pain signals. A small study in patients with fibromyalgia found that subjects who practiced yoga had a higher tolerance to pain and lower activity in portions of the brain involved in pain perception. This was confirmed by measuring brain activity with a functional MRI. So, yoga may increase tolerance for pain and tolerance to stress. Therefore, two different workouts may tame an overactive nervous system and reduce anxiety.
The Bottom Line
Based on one study, high-intensity workouts may be superior for taming anxiety than working out at a moderately intense pace. HIIT routines that make you sweat may offer mental health benefits too. However, low-intensity movement can help relieve stress and control anxiety too by calming an overactive sympathetic nervous system and by enhancing mindfulness Doing both may offer the most benefits. See what works for you! What’s clear is exercise has stress relief benefits. During exercise, we put aside our worries and focus on working up a sweat.
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