How Does Cardio De-Stress? Let Us Count the Ways

Updated 07/17/17
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how does cardio de-stress

Let’s get right down to it: Without giving even a moment’s notice, stress has the ability to leave us confused and sometimes even crippled (and yes, it happens even to seemingly “put-together” people). Anxiety doesn’t discriminate, so whether you’re dealing with it now or sometime in the future, it’s wise to learn the answer to the important question: How does cardio de-stress? In fact, the American Psychological Association’s yearly survey on stress reported an increase in Americans’ anxiety levels—the first time in its ten-year history—suggesting that more individuals are dealing with the repercussions of emotional strain than ever before.

We’re not going to sit here and say that other workouts like yoga don’t have their own calming abilities—because they do—but there is significant scientific evidence that points to cardio as a true stress reliever. But what is it exactly about workouts that get your heart racing, like running, biking, and swimming, that allow them to affect our stress levels in such a significant way? Since we know you’re wondering, here are all the ways that cardio helps us de-stress. Scroll down, and then get a move on.

It boosts feel-good hormones

We know, we know, we talk about feel-good hormones a lot, but it’s because they are so important to how we feel. Doing any form of cardio puts pressure on our bodies, which in turn stimulates the production of neurochemicals (a.k.a. endorphins, serotonin, and norepinephrine) in our brain. These feel-good hormones tell our opioid receptors to make us feel more comfortable in times of stress—from a structure standpoint, they’re actually quite similar to morphine and are therefore “natural painkillers,” says J. Kip Matthews, Ph.D, a sport and exercise psychologist.

And since you’re probably curious, the optimal amount of cardio exercise to de-stress is a level you’re used to, according to a study in Clinical Psychology Review. (The goal is not to overexert yourself, or that will add to your anxiety). And if you don’t normally work out, John Ratey, MD, a Harvard Medical School professor, and the author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, says just two minutes of exercise that raises your heart rate will help give you a mood boost. 

It interrupts negative thoughts

Do you ever wish there was an “off” button on your brain? Sometimes, anxiety manifests itself in what’s called “a spinning mind,” when you can’t stop the thoughts in your head. In this situation, doing any type of cardio exercise can keep you focused so those types of thoughts just fade away… and sometimes it lasts for longer than the actual time you’re working out, too. In the book The Joy of Running, Monte Davis writes: “It’s hard to run and feel sorry for yourself at the same time … there are those hours of clearheadedness that follow a long run.”

It lessens muscle tension

We often think of stress as something that’s mental, but we carry it in our body, too. Feelings of anxiety cause our muscles to tense, and these pressure points on the body can make us even more stressed out. The good news is that cardio exercise brings oxygen into our muscles, which decreases tension and helps lower stress levels. Through calming your body, you’re working to calm your mind. (By the way, although sleep works to reduce muscle tension, aerobic workouts speed up the process.)

It changes the makeup of our brain

How does cardio de-stress? Well, according to the results of a study conducted by researchers at Princeton, this type of exercise produces more neurons in the brain—especially the type that is “designed to shush and quiet activity.” The team found a group of adult mice and let half of them run on wheels while the others were kept sedentary. What they found was that both sets of mice had an increase in new, excitable brain cells, but the runners produced more. Furthermore, those who followed an exercise routine had an increased number of “shushing neurons” that released GABA, a neurotransmitter that wards off anxiety and quiets down the neurons that cause us to become upset or worried.

What is your go-to way to de-stress? Be sure to tell us in the comments. Up next: how to get out of a rut.

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