To commemorate Stress Awareness Month 2021, we wanted this edition of the Keeping You in the Game blog to be focused around the, you guessed it, benefits of exercise on lowering stress. We also hope to provide you with some useful information about why it is that sport and exercise is so beneficial and shed some light on other factors that it impacts too.

You may notice that there will be a lot of talk about ‘cortisol’ in this blog, but it is with good reason. Cortisol is the main stress hormone in the human body and is one of the main contributors of our ‘fight or flight’ response – which you may be familiar with. However, cortisol also plays a role in several of our key processes including how we manage carbohydrates, fats and proteins, control inflammation, regulate our blood levels, and control our sleep/wake cycle – so don’t think of it as a bad thing to have in your body, it is essential to what we do!

What you do need to be aware of; is that if our levels of cortisol are too high as this can lead to stress disorders, weight gain, trouble sleeping, heart disease, and contribute to anxiety and depression. Below, you will find some useful tips that you can build into your routine and in turn – help to reduce and manage your stress levels.

 

It would be remiss of me, as a member of Sport in Mind staff, to not start off our top tips by speaking about exercise! Regular sport and physical activity are some of the best ways to reduce your levels of cortisol over time[1]. Indeed, any form of exercise is incredibly powerful as it enables us to reduce our levels of cortisol; whilst boosting our levels of endorphins and serotonin – which are mood boosters which can leave us feeling energised and ready to go! It has also been shown that while intense exercise can raise our cortisol levels[2], regular moderate-intense exercise can reduce cortisol levels at night; leading to improved and more restful sleep[3].

 A mood-boosting run in the setting (rising?) sun! 

Speaking of sleep, stress can make it a lot trickier to fall asleep – and this is in part to the increased levels of cortisol leading to our internal alarm system going off[4]. The good news is that regular exercise can increase our levels of melatonin, which is a key hormone in helping us feel awake and energised during the day, but also contributes to a peaceful sleep/wake cycle[5]. Our top tip here would be to try and engage in regular exercise during the daytime, and not too close to when you would like to go to sleep – as this can lead to you feeling awake and alert when you need to be resting!

 An exercise-filled day for our feline friend here... 

One of the best ways to manage stress is to enjoy some time in the great outdoors. Quite often, urban environments can come with a lot more noise, crowding and general hectic-ness – which can make it quite tricky to reduce our stress levels. It has been shown that spending time away from busy urban environments can help us to relax[6] - so why not find some time to go on a walk, bike ride or run somewhere in the countryside? or around your local park? 

You should have seen this one coming - yoga! Much like many mental health problems, the impacts of stress can be felt both physiologically and mentally; which is why yoga, with it's focus on both the body and mind, is one of the best ways to achieve peacefulness and help us manage our stress levels. The poses in yoga can help us relieve muscle tension, the focus on calm and consistent breathing can help us to calm our mind, and the meditation and relaxation can help us naturally reduce our blood pressure and heart rate[7]. In addition, many of the techniques learnt in yoga can be done anywhere, so can be a powerful tool in helping manage stressful situations. 

Our final tip is to be kind to yourself. Research has shown that when we are experiencing heightened levels of stress, this can make it more challenging to engage in physical activity[8]. Our top tip would be to listen to your body, take it one step at a time – even a 10-minute walk can be really beneficial![9]

 

 

References

[1] - https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/exercising-to-relax

[2] - https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27956050/

[3] - https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10200900/

[4] - https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26779321/

[5] - https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9406031/

[6] - https://www.stress.org/how-being-outdoors-and-getting-active-impacts-stress-management

[7] - https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/yoga/art-20044733 

[8] - https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40279-013-0090-5

[9] - https://blog.myfitnesspal.com/why-10-minutes-of-walking-a-day-is-so-great-and-easy-to-do-for-your-health/