Effects of Exercise on Stress Management

Original Editor - Manisha Shrestha Top Contributors - Manisha Shrestha, Kim Jackson, Lauren Lopez and Vidhu Sindwani


Stress may be defined as a state of threatened homeostasis, which is counteracted by adaptive processes involving affective, physiological, biochemical, and cognitive–behavioral responses in an attempt to regain homeostasis.[1]

Stress and Health

Stress can lead to various physical and mental health concerns. American institute of stress has estimated that between 75% and 90% of primary care physician visits are caused by stress-related illnesses. Cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, depression, anxiety, immune system suppression, headaches, back and neck pain, and sleep problems are some of the health problems associated with stress[2]. Stress also influences individual behaviors that affect health. Diet choices, sleep habits, and drug use are behaviors that are often negatively affected by stress The American Psychological Association (APA)’s 2011 survey showed that 39% percent of respondents reported overeating or eating unhealthy food because of stress, 29% reported skipping a meal and 44% reported lying awake at night. On a positive note, 47% of respondents reported walking or exercise as a way of managing stress. The detail about the effect of stress in our body is in the page linked in the topic itself.

Stress Management

Stress coping methods are the cognitive, behavioral and psychological efforts to deal with stress. There are many stress management techniques some of them are progressive muscle relaxation, cognitive behavior therapy, transcendental meditation, breathing techniques, yoga,exercises and biofeedback.[3] A comprehensive stress management program will include specific techniques prescribed on an individual basis but a general stress management recommendation include [4]

  • Identifying stressors
  • Get adequate rest
  • Develop a time management plan
  • Develop a healthy diet plan
  • Engaging in regular physical exercise.
  • Mobilize a support network

Exercise and Stress

There are several evidences that support exercise as a coping strategies for stress management and improving mental health in people with chronic disease like diabetes, coronary artery diseases, cancer, etc. Not only that exercise is practicable treatment for coping with stress among athletes, students, elderly and even in adults.Moreover,regular physical activity such as exercise is the simple and inexpensive strategy to use in facing stress in daily life.[2][4]

Physiology of Exercises for Stress Management.

The exact physiological mechanisms to explain how exercise improves stress have not been delineated. But previous research said that

  • Being physically active improves the way the body handles stress because of changes in the hormone responses such as endorphins is elevated in plasma level following exercise inhibiting the central nervous system (CNS) accounting sensation of calm and improved mood experienced.[2][4]
  • Physical activity increases the synaptic transmission of monoamines, including serotonin, dopamine, and adrenaline which act as anti depressant affecting mood and behaviors.[2]
  • With that exercise serves as a time-out or distraction from one’s stressors causing calming effect and improved retrieval of positive thoughts.[4]

In the phenomenological study done by Jong-Ho in 2014 to explore the Impacts of Physical Exercise on Stress Coping and Well-Being in University Students showed that leisure-time physical exercise contributes to effective problem-focused coping through elicitation of positive emotion. The enhanced coping with stress, in turn, can influence the regulation of health behaviors, thus leading to overall well- being.[6]

What Kind of Exercise?

Aerobic exercise and mind body types of exercises such as yoga or Tai Chi have shown effectiveness in reducing stress whereas not much evidence is available regarding resistance exercises.[2]

Even though the evidence between resistance exercise and stress management is lacking,resistance exercise can be used as time out from stressor.[2]

While prescribing exercises, it should be individual based i.e considering specific and important consideration. Because of health consequences associated with stress, high-stress clients are likely to be at increased risk for cardiovascular disease and cardiovascular events during exercise. Therefore, using the preexercise screening procedures outlined and endorsed by the American College of Sports Medicine is essential.[2] Along with that common exercise barriers and stress-related health problems should be taken into consideration when developing an exercise prescription for high-stress individuals. Lack of time, lack of motivation, fatigue, poor sleep habits, and poor dietary habits are exercise barriers associated with stress that can negatively impact exercise compliance and adherence.[2]

How Much Exercise is Needed to Manage Stress?

The recommendations for exercise in the role of stress management fit with the current health recommendations by ACSM (2015) to maintain their fitness and healthy i.e. at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise per week. [4] According to Riebe et al., 2015, the domain of exercise and stress reduction, exercise interventions usually include at least three exercise sessions per week of atleast 15 minutes duration at moderate intensities.[4] Moderate intensities aerobic exercises include jogging, cycling, dancing, etc.

The resistance exercise prescription for general health benefits of two to three days of exercise to target all of the major muscle groups performed at a moderate intensity of 8 to 12 repetitions can be recommended.[2]

Individual having work-related stress using exercise as a time-out from stressors, shorter duration activity can serve the purpose, especially when lack of time or fatigue is a concern. Breaking exercise session into two 10-15 minutes before and after work can be really beneficial.[2]

The recent studies have shown that Tai Chi and yoga of sessions between 60 and 90 minutes performed 2 to 3 days per week were effective in reducing stress and improving feelings of well-being. A study conducted in a work site environment showed that 15 minutes of chair-based yoga postures was effective in reducing acute stress indicating shorter duration sessions can be effective in reducing acute stress.

Self-Directed Stress Management and Home-Based Exercise

In the pilot study done by Wilson et al. 2006, among cancer patient receiving chemotherapy to explored the feasibility, safety, and effectiveness of a self-administered exercise and stress management intervention.Participant's evaluations of the combined intervention were favorable: 90% felt it was helpful to them and 100% would recommend it to another patient. Thus a self-administered intervention combining aerobic exercise and stress management was acceptable and safe for cancer patient after initial assessment and exercise prescription based on ASCM guideline.[7]

In this study, stress management intervention included aerobic exercise ( walking, swimming, cycling) along with paced abdominal breathing, progressive muscle relaxation with guided imagery, and the use of coping self-statements were given. Aerobic exercise of 20–40 min at 50– 75% estimated heart rate reserve 3–5 times per week was advised.[7]

Aerobic Exercise

Walking, skipping, jogging, dancing, cycling, treadmill walking etc. can be used as aerobic exercise.


Breathing Exercises


Progressive Muscle Relaxation




Other Related Helpful Pages


  1. Stults-Kolehmainen MA, Sinha R. The effects of stress on physical activity and exercise. Sports medicine. 2014 Jan 1;44(1):81-121.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8 2.9 Jackson EM. Stress relief: The role of exercise in stress management. ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal. 2013 May 1;17(3):14-9.
  3. Varvogli L, Darviri C. Stress Management Techniques: evidence-based procedures that reduce stress and promote health. Health science journal. 2011 Apr 1;5(2):74.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 Sharon-David H, Tenenbaum G. The Effectiveness of Exercise Interventions on Coping with Stress: Research Synthesis.
  5. SAMHSA. Stress Management Techniques, Healthy Coping Strategies, Breathing Exercise. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IqpCCnmwNVY [last accessed 20/03/2020]
  6. Kim JH, McKenzie LA. The impacts of physical exercise on stress coping and well-being in university students in the context of leisure. Health. 2014 Nov 7;6(19):2570.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Wilson RW, Taliaferro LA, Jacobsen PB. Pilot study of a self-administered stress management and exercise intervention during chemotherapy for cancer. Supportive care in cancer. 2006 Sep 1;14(9):928-35.
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  9. Johns Hopkins Rheumatology. Reducing Stress Through Deep Breathing (1 of 3). Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wemm-i6XHr8 [last accessed 20/03/2020]
  10. Johns Hopkins Rheumatology. Reduce Stress through Progressive Muscle Relaxation (3 of 3). Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ClqPtWzozXs [last accessed 21/03/2020]
  11. Yoga With Adriene. Yoga To Heal Stress | 20 Min. Yoga Practice | Yoga With Adriene. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tD_l3fDTFyg [last accessed 21/03/2020]