Get Stress Relief With Exercise: 2 Ways It Can Help

by Sarah on October 5, 2011

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When’s the last time you had a no-good very bad day?*

You know, the kind when you didn’t get a good night’s sleep because you were worrying about a project . . .

So instead of feeling refreshed and ready to tackle it the next day –

You feel lousy.

Cold-oatmeal kind of lousy.

Stinky-wool-socks kind of lousy.

You feel like kicking something . . .You feel like putting on the TV and watching really bad reality shows and ignoring the real world . . . And you feel about as capable of taking on your challenges as a squished beetle.

(I’ve seen a few of these as my 11-year-old finishes up his bug project for school – they don’t look very capable!)

Of course, these are the moments when exercise is the last thing you want to do.

When in fact, it’s the first thing you should do to help you break out of this broody mood.

Because when it comes to stress relief, exercise rules.

As I’ve mentioned before, it gives you energy – paying you back huge returns on the investment of energy you put into it.

And as I wrote in an earlier post for parents, exercise actually kicks your brain into high gear.

But it also helps on the emotional front in two crucial ways . . .

Stress Relief Factor #1: Exercise Helps You Avoid Meltdowns

Dr. Catherine Davis, a clinical health psychologist, and her research team at Medical College of Georgia created a 3-month study that involved about 200 overweight 7-11 year old children to find out how exercise helped them with anger management.

They found that exercise not only improved behavior but helped reduce depression and anxiety in the children they were studying.

Other studies on mice and men have shown similar correlations.

One study demonstrated that running upregulated genes in mice that resulted in a neural response similar to the one created by antidepressants.

In a 2010 study, 16 young men were presented with pictures that would provoke angry responses both before and after exercising. The researchers then used a combination of physiological measurements and self-reporting to assess the test subjects reactions in both situations.

According to Nathaniel Thom, Ph. D, lead investigator, “The major novel finding from this study is that exercise protected against angry mood induction, almost like taking aspirin to prevent a heart attack.”

Now this probably doesn’t come as a big surprise to you.

Yet, it bears reminding. I’ve certainly felt my fuse burning fast and been on the edge of chewing out one of my kids. But if I can get outside and do a few farm chores, I end up much calmer on the other side.

It’s a great whole family solution as well. We’ve had a few off days put back to rights with a good family game of tag or badminton.

And this discovery is intimately related to the next activity-borne tool for managing tough days . . .

Stress Relief Factor #2: Exercise Helps You Feel Better About Yourself

Dr. Davis and her team at the Medical College of Georgia were not about to leave out part of the picture. They conducted another study that links nicely to the anger one. In this study they also used a group of 200 children who were overweight.

The researchers found that after exercising everyday for 40 minutes after school, this crew had more self-worth.

And as the researchers noted, the improved self-esteem wasn’t even about losing weight. Over the duration of the study they didn’t shed many pounds.

It was simply the act of getting up and doing something, according to some of the children, that made them feel better.

I certainly can identify with this one. Simply put, when I do some activity I just feel good. And I can check something off my list.

Exercise can give you a feeling of accomplishment. Something most of us sorely need on an overwhelming day.

But it also is a chemical boost. Exercise increases the amount of the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine. Both of these neurotransmitters are associated with feeling good.

True – exercise can’t get rid of that tough project. Or get your 6-year-old to eat his peas.

But it can help you approach both these challenges and more with a stronger heart – both physically and metaphorically-speaking.

How To Get Stress Relief In Exercise

First, don’t make it a big deal that gets you even more stressed out. Forget the gym. Don’t even worry about getting into your special exercise gear. Just drop to the floor and churn out 3 sets of pushups (my favorite).

Or jump rope for 5 minutes.

If you need a real break, maybe the gym or a bike ride is the best thing for you. But don’t think you have to go big to get the benefits of exercising.

Second, use it to switch the mood. Go outside if you can for a quick walk and enjoy the scenery. Play a 15-minute game of basketball with your daughter and laugh at the crazy trash talk you come up with.

Use it to get away from the work that’s dogging you for even a brief moment and really get your mind off of it.

What’s your take on this? Please share your experiences below!


*A tribute to Judith Viorst’s great children’s book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.

[1] Medical College of Georgia (2008, December 3). Exercise Helps Overweight Children Reduce Anger Expression. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 5, 2011, from­ /releases/2008/11/081124130951.htm

[1] Hunsberger JG et al. Antidepressant actions of the exercise-regulated gene VGF Nature Medicine 13, 1476 – 1482 (2007) Published online: 2 December 2007 | doi:10.1038/nm1669

[1]Exercise Is Good Medicine For Preventing And Reducing An Angry Mood. American College of Sports Medicine. Viewed 10/5/11 at

[1] Medical College of Georgia (2009, March 18). Regular Exercise Reduces Depressive Symptoms, Improves Self-esteem In Overweight Children. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 5, 2011, from­ /releases/2009/03/090318104330.htm

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