The Benefits of Exercise on our Stress Levels!

Today the psychologist in me is talking about Stress, which we all experience from time to time, and the benefits of exercise on our stress levels.

Chronic stress, including anxiety and depression, are very prevalent in today’s fast paced society with 1 in 2 Australians experiencing a mental health condition in their lifetime, although most of the time others wouldn’t know it.   And while some stress can be good, sparking us to make changes in our lives, or get something done,  getting stressed too often and staying stressed for too long is detrimental to your health.  In particular, stress can lead to increased weight, inflammation and increased blood sugar.

Everyone copes differently with stress, from overindulging in their favourite treats, to going off their food, or taking it out on the ones we love, or sitting on the couch with a block of chocolate and a movie!  However, evidence indicates that physical activity can be a powerful tool to manage such conditions and offers benefits comparable to established treatments for mental disorders, like medication and cognitive behavioural therapy.

So, in addition to the obvious benefits of exercise on our physical health, exercise also plays an important role for our mental health as well.   Exercise can help to reduce stress by boosting feelings of wellbeing, improve social interactions, improve self-esteem and self-worth, and give you a sense of confidence and control over your life.  This is because exercise increases some of the neurotransmitters in the brain, such as noradrenaline, dopamine and serotonin, which help in the management of mood.

And any type of physical activity can help, it doesn’t have to be high intensity.  So, any of the activities below can help:

  • Yoga
  • Stretching and Foam Rolling
  • Boxing Classes
  • Strength training using either bodyweight or weights
  • Cardio, like a brisk walk or run.

And it’s not just what we have going on in our lives that can increase stress – certain foods can also elevate our stress levels for some people.  In particular, the big ones to avoid when stressed or feeling anxious are:

  • Sugar – when you eat sugary foods, blood sugar levels spike, which can cause sleep issues, decreased immunity, headaches, unhealthy food cravings and feelings that are similar to stress, including anxiousness.
  • Artificial Sweeteners – things like Aspartame can affect your mood as well, so go for natural sweeteners like raw honey, stevia, dates, maple syrup, banana or apple puree, or rice syrup.
  • Excess caffeine – for some people, too much caffeine can overstimulate the body, increasing blood pressure and heart rate that will increase your stress levels.
  • Processed Carbohydrates (or Simple Carbs) – these are the sugary ones, found in cakes, biscuits and sweets which are sometimes termed empty calories or calorie dense foods, as they give you no nutritional benefits. These foods can also cause fluctuations in blood sugar and make you feel more irritable once you come down from the sugar high!

But, although the positive effects of exercise and eating right are quite obvious and should motivate just about anyone, it’s not that simple especially if you are stressed, anxious or depressed.  Sometimes we can use our mood as an excuse to not exercise and eat right.  So we can fluctuate from being really motivated when we are not stressed, to just falling in a heap and using every excuse in the book to do nothing when stress kicks in!  If this is you and you find that healthy eating and exercise are falling by the wayside, try some of these tips to get your motivation back:

  • Remind yourself how good you will feel after exercise
  • Make exercise less effort by being organised – so if you plan an early morning session, put your gym clothes out by your bedside so you can just wake up and get dressed half asleep! Or put your gym gear on in the morning so that you are ready to exercise once you have dropped the kids off at school and done all your chores.
  • Don’t keep those sweet treats in the house that you know you love and will turn to when stressed!
  • Start with small changes, rather than major overhauls, so you can eventually build momentum and make long-term lifestyle changes!
  • If you skipped today’s workout because you didn’t feel up to it, don’t beat yourself up about it, just schedule one in tomorrow or the next day, and make sure it is something that you enjoy!
  • Similarly, if you ate something unhealthy, like a massive slab of chocolate, again, don’t beat yourself up about it, just make tomorrow a clean eating day.
  • If you drank too much at the party last night, try to go alcohol free tomorrow and drink heaps of water.
  • Enlist a friend or family member to keep you on track and schedule some workouts together to keep each other accountable and motivated!

So remember, healthy eating and exercise is a great way to keep both body and mind in good shape.  If you or someone you know needs professional help please speak to your doctor or in an emergency contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.