Feeling Stressed? Move your body for heart & brain benefits.
By Amie Durenberger
Stress is your body’s reaction to physical, mental, and emotional challenges. When faced with a difficult task, your brain can release hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, to help you overcome obstacles; this process is sometimes called “fight or flight” — a survival mechanism we developed to avoid danger. 
Stress can be helpful when it’s a catalyst to help you survive immediate danger (running from a predator, say). But in the modern era, we don’t often have short term, or acute stressors – we have long term, low level stressors. They aren’t often life-threatening – it’s driving in traffic, work pressure, family commitments, etc. But long term, these pressure states raise your stress hormones – and that chronic condition can harm your overall wellbeing.
We need to help our bodies manage stress better. One of the best ways, and proven time and time again, is exercise. Moving the body.
Exercise is widely referred to as the most effective but most underutilized form of antidepressant and anti-stress remedies. Yet only 26% of men and 19% of women met the US Department of Health and Human Services’ physical activity guidelines.
So, before you grab some junk food and fire up your Netflix, let’s look at why exercise, and different forms of exercise, might be just what your body (and your brain) need.
What exercise can do
Exercise can’t reduce the presence of stressors, but it can help you manage your stress by reducing feelings of anxiety and depression, diminishing fatigue, and improving overall cognition.     
There are several explanations for the positive impact that physical activity has on mental health. The most common belief is the endorphin hypothesis: exercise improves your sense of wellbeing by releasing pain-relieving and pleasure-increasing hormones called endorphins. But physical activity also releases monoamine hormones like serotonin and dopamine that can further boost your mood.  Studies show that exercise can also serve as a means of distraction from stressful events and make you feel more capable and in control of your life.   
Choose your Exercise for your type of Stress
There are four different types of exercise: aerobic, strength, balance, and flexibility. All four can help with stress, but some may be more effective than others. For substantial health benefits, the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) focuses on aerobic and strength activities. They recommend that all adults get at least 150 minutes/week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise and complete muscle-strengthening activities for all major muscle groups twice a week. However, balance and flexibility exercises like yoga and Tai Chi also offer significant mental health benefits.
Aerobic exercises (aka cardio or endurance training) increase both your heart rate and oxygen consumption. Aerobic exercise can come in many forms, including brisk walking, jogging, dancing, swimming, mowing the lawn, or any other physical activity that gets your heart rate up. 
One study found that even brief aerobic exercise—10 minutes of brisk walking—can decrease fatigue and improve overall mood. And regular aerobic exercise can calm activity in your sympathetic nervous system—the internal network that creates your stress response. Researchers found that aerobic exercise can reduce anxiety immediately after physical activity and in the long-term with continued practice. 
What’s even better? Aerobic exercise is one of the few ways that the brain has of reducing senescent cells (dying or aging cells). This is difficult to do for the brain – due to the blood/brain barrier, it is hard for the brain to remove waste. It can only do this during sleep, and it needs the right nutrients to do so. The act of aerobic exercise significantly increases blood oxygen to the brain and allows for senescent cell clean-out. It also enables the creation of BDNF (brain derived neurotropic factor) – which enables new brain cells and neural connections to form. So yes, even if you don’t exercise for weight loss or cardiac benefits, you should exercise regularly to protect your brain from early aging, including dementia and early-onset Alzheimers.
Strength training (aka resistance or weight training) uses applied force such as dumbbells or the weight of your own body to build muscular strength. Weightlifting, climbing, paddling, or using resistance exercise bands are all examples of strength training.
A growing body of research shows that low-to-moderate intensity strength training can have significant anxiety-reducing effects.  Studies found that strength training can increase cognitive function in the elderly, reduce anxiety in stroke patients, and improve sleep for women with generalized anxiety disorders.   
Balance & Stability
Balance training can improve physical stability and protect against falls. These exercises can include coordination challenges such as standing on one leg, walking backward, using balance boards, or practicing Tai Chi.
Researchers have found that balance exercises can diminish signs of anxiety in both mice and human children.  In adults, one study discovered that balance training could improve memory and cognition.
The traditional Chinese exercise Tai Chi utilizes many balance-focused movements. Several studies have found that Tai Chi can combat stress, anxiety, depression, and mood disturbances—but additional research is needed to confirm these effects.  And hospital staff reported a significant reduction in stress after a 6-week training in another Chinese balance exercise, Qigong.
Flexibility & Toning
Flexibility exercises are activities that enhance your range of motion while loosening and lengthening your muscles. Many popular workouts like yoga, Pilates, and Tai Chi incorporate flexibility training. Stretching exercises like toe-touches, twists, and lunges can also increase your flexibility.  
When it comes to flexibility training, one group of researchers found that yoga has more stress-reducing effects than simple stretches. And mental health professionals who participated in a 12-week yoga program experienced a significant reduction in work-related stress. Flexibility training is also a good option for people who have physical activity limitations. A 2018 study found that women with limitations experienced less stress after flexibility exercises; these results intensified when they stretched at least five times a week.
Yes, you can do it, and Yes, you have the time
You may think you’re too stressed to exercise, or you don’t have the time. If you’re having a hard time getting started with a new exercise routine, don’t worry, that’s normal. In fact, it’s actually your stress-response response telling you that. Many studies have shown that stress can actually impair your efforts to be physically active and make it harder to commit to regular exercise. The good news is once you get the ball rolling, physical activity can diminish your feelings of stress and even offer some protection. Some studies have shown that individuals who exercise regularly have more emotional resilience to psychological stressors. 
But how do you get started in the middle of a pandemic?
Remember, something is better than nothing, and perfectionism is the enemy of progress. Start small and establish a routine. Even a ten-minute walk does you good. The CDC recommends engaging in active family playtime, catching up on household chores, and going on socially distanced walks to maintain physical activity during COVID-19.
For added benefits, get active in nature for more feelings of wellbeing. Hiking, jogging, snowshoeing, biking, or playing non-team sports are just a few options for COVID-safe outdoor exercises.
But the most important thing is for you to choose an activity you love. Finding a form of exercise that brings you joy can keep you coming back and further combat your stress. Your heart and brain will thank you, and you really will feel better afterwards, no matter the activity level.
Amie Durenberger is a professional naturalist and science journalist located in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her writing has appeared in the Teaching Artists Journal and The Department of Natural Resources’ Minnesota Conservation Volunteer.
Since 2013, she has worked as an environmental educator, teaching children and adults about biodiversity, conservation, and edible and medicinal plant uses. She is passionate about providing the public with knowledge and resources in which they can use to promote personal health and develop a stronger connection to the land. She also recognizes that many herbal remedies originated in indigenous tribes and aims to always use healing plants in a way that respects and honors those original people. Amie’s favorite herbal preparations include fresh nettle tea, homemade plantain salve, and wild sumac lemonade.