The vast majority of us are measured by our ability to multitask. And somewhere between meetings, doctor appointments, gym sessions, and remembering to eat, the stress of life begins to weigh us down. When you are stressed, your body release hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, which help you react to and resolve stressful situations. These hormones increase your heart rate in order to speed up the transportation of oxygen throughout your body, which helps you think and act more quickly. When the source of stress is resolved, these hormones ebb, and your body begins to recover.
With stress coming from so many places, eliminating it is a pipedream. But through regular exercise, you can work to keep your hormone levels in balance and your stress under control. Some of us prefer heavy-duty sweat sessions—running, jumping, lunging our way to a happier place. For others, stretching, breathing, and taking a more meditative approach is more effective. Both will work, but will they work for you? Armed with this information, you can be ready to tackle stress while you burn calories.
The Yoga Method
Low-impact exercises such as yoga have been shown to reduce stress hormone levels in the body, as well as increase levels of growth hormones that repair cells and feel-good hormones such as serotonin. While more intense exercise also balances hormone levels in the body, yoga emphasizes the importance of taking time to calm the mind, which can further reduce stress, and even improve our ability to deal with it.
“Yoga is unique in that it enables us to slow down and connect on a psychological level to our bodies, minds, and breathing,” says yoga instructor Aya Owies. “When we are able to connect on a deeper level, we become more balanced not only physically, but also mentally. This balance is why yoga has been proven to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression.”
Yoga can help you unwind after a stressful day, but adding regular relaxation into your daily routine can even keep stress away. A study in the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine found that those who regularly practiced yoga were better able to handle stressful situations and had lower levels of stress hormones than their counterparts. Just a few daily downward dogs and deep breathing exercises can help you manage the unavoidable, everyday stressors in your life.
Short-term effects | Decrease levels of stress hormones such as adrenaline, cortisol, and cytokine interleukin-6, which is linked to aging and may contribute to inflammatory diseases such as heart disease, stroke, and arthritis; increase serotonin and growth hormones.
Long-term effects | Your body produces less stress hormones after a stressful experience; improved flexibility, strength, and balance.
Hopping on a yoga mat and clearing your mind will help combat stress, but some people need to find balance through higher-intensity workouts. Opting for a vigorous run can help you burn through it—no meditation required.
“For some people, if they’re wound tight after a stressful day at work, they respond best by being able to blow off that steam by doing something intense,” says Janet Hamilton, an exercise physiologist and running coach with RunningStrong.com. “When we are stressed, our fight or flight hormones become elevated, and one of the ways that we can diffuse that is through vigorous exercise, which releases a surge of the hormones associated with relaxing and peace.”
A study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise showed that mice and rats experienced antidepressant-like effects after running on a wheel. This is due to the endorphins that are released during intense exercise, which then attach to receptors in the brain that control emotions. With enough exercise, you can experience a state of euphoria, commonly referred to as a “runner’s high.”
The physiological changes that occur in the body when performing vigorous exercise such as running are similar to the changes that occur during a yoga practice. But Hamilton stresses that while yoga is ideal for unwinding and developing flexibility and balance, running provides aerobic benefits that are unique to vigorous exercise.
Short-term effects | Your body produces endorphins, which inhibit feelings of pain, both mentally and physically, and can cause a state of euphoria.
Long-term effects | Improved aerobic and strength performance.