Exercise reduces stress

Blog Post No. 39

26th September 2016

Copyright © Renata Taylor-Byrne 2016

khadeena-coxRenata’s Coaching & Counselling blog: A star technique – Daily exercise!

“Exercise strengthens the entire human machine — the heart, the brain, the blood vessels, the bones, the muscles. The most important thing you can do for your long-term health is lead an active life.”  Dr Timothy Church (2013)



In this blog I want to explain why exercise can be really helpful for us, and describe how it can be very good as a way of reducing anxiety and stress.  (Counselling tends to emphasize the ‘talking cure’ as the solution to everything – but we are body-minds, and we have to attend to our body as well as our inner-dialogue).

Here are two types of stress with which it can be effective:

(1) Transitory stress, which crops up when we run into a threatening or dangerous situation, or we experience a sudden loss.   And:

(2)  Continuous stress, arising out of nagging overloads of work and life challenges.

According to Dr Perlmutter (2015), forty million Americans are affected by anxiety disorders. And in a survey conducted by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) covering Great Britain, 1-in-6 adults had experienced some anxiety in their lives. Anxiety is defined by the NHS (UK) as a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, which can be mild or very strong.

All of us are vulnerable humans. Inevitably we have feelings of anxiety at some point in our lives. This can be in response to a threatening challenge, like a sudden natural disaster, family health problems, job interviews, or if we know we’ve got exams or tests of some kind ahead of us.


A stressful event, either real or imagined, is likely to switch on our ‘sympathetic’ (or arousing) nervous system and we then experience our heart beating faster, which may cause us to shake physically. When the stressful event has passed, we normally calm down, as our ‘parasympathetic’ (or calming) nervous system kicks in.

An anxiety ‘disorder’, on the other hand, is more severe, and normally continues long after any threat or danger to us (physically or emotionally) has passed. It can remain in the background as a constant sense of unease or apprehension.

How physical exercise reduces anxiety

Here is how Joshua Roman-Fulks, researcher from the University of Southern Mississippi, discovered the power of exercise to help people suffering from anxiety. His research experiment – cited in John Ratey and Eric Hagerman’s book – took place in 2004.


Broman-Fulks took a group of 54 students and split them into two sub-groups. Both groups of students had high levels of anxiety and had ‘generalised anxiety disorder’, and they also exercised less than once a week.

The Experiment: Each of the two groups were then assigned to six exercise sessions of twenty minutes duration, which were spread out over two weeks.

# The first group ran on treadmills at an intensity level of 60-90% of their maximum heart rates.

# The second group walked on their treadmills at a speed of one mile an hour, and this was approximately equal to 50% of their maximum heart rates

The beneficial results

The result of these exercise sessions was that both sets of students became less sensitive to anxiety, but the interesting fact was that the more physically demanding exercises produced beneficial results in a shorter space of time.


The reason why exercise works

Let’s see why exercise has these effects:

If (during this kind of exercise session) you experience your heart beating rapidly, and you’re breathing very quickly, you know exactly why it’s happening. It’s because you’re exercising. And you also have the experience of your body handling the sensations of a rapidly-beating heart and rapid breathing. Therefore it doesn’t lead to an anxiety attack as a result!

By doing the exercising, the students had got used to their body being in a state of high arousal, and had the knowledge that it had not resulted in anything unpleasant.


Ratey and Hagerman (2009) state that if you exercise regularly and vigorously, your body goes through these experiences of physical arousal repeatedly – and nothing unpleasant follows.

Then, in the future, when you are presented with a challenge which creates anxiety (or, rather, physical arousal) in your body, you know that this will not necessarily harm you in any way, and that it is merely a subsequent interpretation (accurate or inaccurate) of an event which is causing the anxiety reaction.  (This is not necessarily a conscious interpretation, but rather a habitual emotive-interpretation).

And as your body has dealt successfully, over and over again, in exercise sessions, with bodily arousal, rapid breathing and fast-beating heart, then you learn the following:

Over time you teach the brain that the symptoms don’t always spell doom and that you can survive.”

With this sense of security, you are able to see when your mind is distorting reality for some reason, or in the words of Ratey and Hagerman (2009): “You’re reprogramming the cognitive distortion.” (In E-CENT theory we emphasise that this is an emotive-cognitive process, rather than a conscious form of thinking!)


Apparently it has been known for a very long time that exercise reduces anxiety, but the way that exercise works in the body has only become apparent in the last few years.

What exercise, or strenuous exercise does, is to reduce the tension level in the muscles. This stops the “anxiety feedback loop” going to the brain, and if the body is relaxed, then the brain doesn’t worry.

Exercise produces relaxing chemicals

And exercise itself produces relaxing chemical alterations in the body. As our muscles start moving, the body starts to break down fat molecules to release energy for the increased demand on the body. This releases fatty acids into the bloodstream and the levels of tryptophan and then serotonin increase as a result of this exercise. Serotonin then calms us down and increases our feelings of safety.

Soon after the terrorist attacks in New York that took place on September 11th 2001, Joseph Le Doux and Jack Gorman wrote an article in the American Journal of Psychiatry. The article was called: A call to action: Overcoming anxiety through active coping.  In the article, Le Doux and Gorman explained that when we make a decision in the face of anxiety, there is an alteration in the direction of the flow of outside information.

Usually the information coming in from the outside world, goes straight to the amygdala.  The amygdala (described by Ratey and Hagerman [2009] as “the brain’s panic button”) is an almond-shaped brain structure responsible for dealing with the emotions.  There is one in each cerebral hemisphere of the brain, specifically attuned to possible threats or dangers in the environment. It registers an immediate fear response to a threatening situation, and instigates the switching on of the autonomic nervous system’s response of ‘fight or flight’).


But when we make a decision in the face of an anxiety-arousing situation, then the flow of information, instead of going to the amygdala, goes to the basal nucleus. (This part of the brain is a cluster of brain cells at the base of the brain that helps humans perform practised movements, because it is connected to the body’s motor circuits).

So if we (1) make a decision, or (2) take action, in the face of an anxiety-arousing situation, we’re re-routing the brain activity away from the amygdala (the fear-memory centre that controls the ‘fight or flight response’).

Ratey and Hagerman (2009) state: “The basal nucleus is the action pathway, and we can even spark it with thought. For one of my patients, who was traumatized by losing both his job and his girlfriend at the same time, I suggested he start each day by getting to the gym, to keep from stewing in the trauma.”

“He could also shift the flow from fear to his action circuits by making a list of potential employers to call – a more classic example of coping – but it wouldn’t affect the brain as broadly.”

“By doing something other than sitting and worrying, we re-route the thought processes around the passive response centre and dilute the fear, while optimising the brain to learn a new scenario.

“Everyone’s instinctive response in the face of danger is to avoid the situation, like a rat that freezes in its cage. But, doing just the opposite, (or getting in action! Ed) we engage in cognitive restructuring, using our bodies to cure our brains.” (Ratey and Hagerman 2009: Page 105).

How exercise works as an anxiety-reducing technique

Firstly, as has just been described, it provides a diversion from a current stressor by immediately investing your mental functioning into physical activity rather than emotional arousal.

exercise7Secondly, it lowers muscle tension and “…serves as a circuit-breaker…interrupting the negative feedback loop from the body to the brain that heightens anxiety”. (Page 106)

In 1982 a researcher called Herbert de Vries conducted a research study that revealed that people who experienced anxiety had “overactive electrical patterns in their muscle spindles” and exercise reduced that tension. This led the researcher to coin the phrase: “the tranquillising effects of exercise.”

Thirdly, it increases the level of serotonin in the body, which (according to some theorists) helps to control messages from the brain stem, and helps the prefrontal cortex minimise the fear response, which quietens down the amygdala.

Fourthly, as you experience your heart rate and breathing increasing with anxiety, this is the same experience as you have when doing vigorous exercise. These two experiences, with practice, become connected, or associated with each other. And as the exercise is self-initiated and can be controlled, this generalises to the anxiety-inducing experience. Thereafter, the fear response (when it is related to past experiences, not present threats or dangers) slowly fades.

According to Ratey and Hagerman (2009) exercise “also increases resilience”. This is developed because you learn the skill of effectively controlling your bodily responses and managing anxiety without allowing it to turn into panic.  This is how they describe it:

The psychological term is self-mastery, and developing it is a powerful prophylactic (therapeutic technique) against anxiety sensitivity and depression, which can develop from anxiety. In consciously doing something for yourself, you realize that you can do something for yourself.” Ratey and Hagerman (2009: Page 108).


Robert Sapolsky’s research findings


Finally, I’d like to mention the views of Robert Sapolsky on the benefits of exercise. He’s been researching and writing about the effects of stress on human beings for many years. He is a professor of biology, neuroscience and neurosurgery at Stanford University, and a research associate with the Institute of Primal research, National Museum of Kenya.  He is the author of a book titled, ‘Why Zebras don’t get ulcers (2010)’ which is a guide to stress and stress-related diseases, and how we cope with them.

When Sapolsky describes the techniques he uses to control his own stress, he starts with exercise, and states that he uses this technique most frequently. And in his book he describes the many benefits of physical exercise. In relation to blood pressure and resting heart rate, for example, he states that regular exercise will lower them both, and increase lung capacity at the same time.

Exercise also reduces the risk of a range of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, and so lessens the chance of stress making them worse.

Exercise makes us feel better, and uplifts our mood, and this is because of the release of beta-endorphins. These are neurotransmitters, which are chemicals that pass along signals from one neuron to the next. Neurotransmitters play a crucial role in the function of the central nervous system, and in mood change; and beta-endorphins are more powerful than morphine. (See Bryant, 2010)

New imaging methods have allowed researchers to study the pattern of behaviour of neurotransmitters in the body, and the flow of endorphins as they interact with human brain cells, confirming that they play a part in  the ‘feel-good effect that we get from exercising’. So they are natural pain-killers and mood-lifters – (according to Charles Bryant, 2010).

sapolskyIn addition, Sapolsky (2010) states that you reduce physical tension in your body by doing challenging physical exercises. And there is also evidence that if you are well-exercised, then your reaction to psychological stressors is reduced considerably.

However, Sapolsky points out that there are several provisos, in his opinion:

(1) You will get a more cheerful mood and a reduced stress response if you exercise – but this will only last for a period of time, which can vary from between two hours up to a day after the exercise session. So the benefits wear off if the exercise is not repeated regularly.

(2) He also makes the point that you will only reduce your stress levels through exercise if you want to do it.


Sapolsky states:

“Let rats voluntarily run on a running wheel and their health improves in all sorts of ways. Force them, even when playing great dance music, and their health worsens”. (Page 491).


I hope you found the findings of these researchers useful, and manage to identify (or have already found) the right kind of exercise for you!

That’s all for now.

Best wishes,


Renata Taylor-Byrne


The Coaching/Counselling Division


01422 843 629



Bryant, C.W. (2010) Does running fight depression? 14th July 2010.
Blog post at HowStuffWorks.com. Available online:        http://adventure.howstuffworks.com/outdoor-activities/running/health/running-fight-depression.htm.  Accessed 16th June 2016.

Perlmutter, D. (2015) Brain Maker: The power of gut microbes to heal and protect your brain – for life. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Ratey, J., and Hagerman, E. (2009) Spark: The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain. London: Quercus.

Sapolsky, R. (2010) Why Zebras don’t get Ulcers. Third Ed. New York: St Martin’s Griffin.



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