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Exercise and Stress Management

By Elaina Gayles | Therapydia Lake Oswego

Stress is your body’s normal response to changing or demanding circumstances. Stress can be a necessary response temporarily, but long term stress can be exhausting and unpleasant. Exercise is one way to manage psychological stress and PTs are advantaged to provide insight into how it helps and which types of exercise to try.

How does exercise help with stress?

Exercise releases neurotransmitters called endorphins.

You may have heard of these mood-boosting hormones that also have a pain-inhibiting effect. Over time, exercise can also improve with regulation of other stress-related substances, such as cortisol and epinephrine (also known as adrenaline).

Exercise can help with relaxation.

By stimulating your sympathetic or “fight or flight” nervous system, your parasympathetic or “rest and digest” nervous system can also function more effectively. Some people also report exercising is like meditation in that they are focused on moving their body, rather than on stressful thoughts or their to-do lists.

Sleep hygiene can improve with consistent exercise.

Sleep is one of the most important habits to maintain for stress management as well as overall health. Exercise can improve your sleep quality and some report it assists with insomnia.

Multiple studies have also investigated the effects of exercise on symptoms of anxiety and depression. If one of these conditions may be contributing to your stress state, exercise may be one way to help with management. Of course, consulting with your mental health provider is important if dealing with anxiety and/or depression. 

Luckily, almost all types of exercise have been shown to be effective to help manage stress. Exercise recommendations for stress management can coincide with ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine) guidelines for amount and type of exercise for regular health maintenance and for prevention of common diseases. They recommend 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity (such as brisk walking, swimming, light bike riding) or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity (such as running or intense cycling) per week. A combination of moderate and vigorous activity works great, too. They also recommend strength training for each major muscle group at least twice per week. However, starting small is a good idea, especially if you have not been in the habit of exercising.

What types of exercise help with stress?

Steady state aerobic exercise

Walking, cycling, swimming, running, or hiking have shown some of the strongest correlations with decreased stress.

High intensity interval training

Such as circuit training, plyometrics, tabata-style workouts, or interval running/cycling are likely to produce a similar effect within a shorter period of time.

Mindfulness practices

Yoga or tai chi, often incorporate breathing and meditation which can have a very positive effect on mental health.

Resistance training or strength training

Though demonstrating the lowest correlation with improving stress levels, can increase your body’s ability to perform daily tasks, to tolerate other types of exercise, and can have a positive effect on prevention of chronic disease.


It is important to acknowledge that any movement is better than no movement. The bottom line is to move; even hobbies such as gardening, home improvement, dancing, or playing with kids/pets can be used as exercise. Finding what type of exercise you enjoy most and sticking to it will help in setting yourself up for success. Physical Therapists are experts (we have our doctorates!) on exercise and musculoskeletal health. If you have an injury or any limitation keeping you from moving your best, give us a call to see if we can help.

Jessica Jones

Physical Therapist

Jessica recently moved to Seattle from Boston, MA and is excited to join the Therapydia team. Her treatment experience includes orthopedics, sports medicine, pediatrics, and vestibular therapy. Jessica received her Doctorate in Physical Therapy from Northeastern University in Boston, MA in 2016. She has completed the Pediatric Physical Therapy Residency at Boston Children’s Hospital and is in the process of completing a Comprehensive Vestibular Rehabilitation certification. Jessica believes in empowering and inspiring patients to take control of their health through education, movement, and exercise. She enjoys treating patients of all ages and levels while utilizing soft tissue techniques, neuromuscular re-education, balance training as well as therapeutic exercise. In her free time, Jessica enjoys yoga, dancing, kayaking, and hiking with her dog!


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