Martial arts require intense concentration and years of study. Yoga integrates the mind and body physically while focusing on breathing. Running is an intense, calorie-burning, high impact exercise that can lift the spirits and result in a runner’s high. Weight lifting strengthens the basic building blocks of life and can help prevent the risks that come with aging. These are all very different exercises.
They all have something in common. Exercise, all quality exercise, can reduce stress!
The trick is that the benefits of stress reduction do not occur near the muscles. During exercise, those parts of the body actually create small tears from the exercise; it is the repairs that the body does after the exercise that makes the muscles stronger. This is a long term benefit to exercise, and it does not explain the reason that exercise reduces stress in the short term.
So we know that muscles have more of a long-term effect and that they do not contribute to the stress reduction as much. We have eliminated the musculoskeletal system. All we have left is the brain. The brain is the area where the stress reduction occurs during exercise. Neurological chemicals, including endorphins, serotonin, and norepinephrine, all increase in the body as you exercise. This flood of beneficial chemicals in your brain can contribute to an overall increase in positive mental health aspects.
For example, exercise can be painful, moving the body after sitting at the office can be a bit tiring as the body has been stagnant for quite a while. However, the endorphins that your body puts out into your bloodstream, and brain, have a structure similar to the painkiller morphine. That means that your body is actively trying to reduce the sensation of pain while you exercise. The endorphins help reduce the sensation of pain, but if there is a serious injury present, the endorphins will not be able to mask that pain as easily. So, it is important to rest because the body can break down from all of the exercise and needs to repair.
Serotonin and norepinephrine also play a big part in the stress reduction, too. They are neurotransmitters responsible for important functions in the brain. Research has found that depression is linked to low levels of serotonin and norepinephrine. Exercise naturally increases these feel-good neurotransmitters, which is why exercise can reduce stress, and reduce feelings of depression. Plus, exercise can be done in a social environment. Exercise can be creative. Take a spin class. Go to a trampoline park. Join a rock climbing gym. These social and creative aspects can also help reduce stress. Social activity can decrease feelings of loneliness and increases the communication that is so vital to positive mental health.
So, before the winter blues set in, or Seasonal Affective Disorder, consider taking a class or learning a new physical skill. Your body and mind will thank you for it.