The psychology of stress and exercise

Stressed? Just go for a run?

We all know that exercise is good for us physically, but it also has dramatic effects on our psychological motivation, focus and wellbeing. And you don’t have to run marathons to benefit from it. But what are the exact mechanisms of these effects, and how much exercise do we need to do to achieve them?

The benefits of exercise

Exercise has been linked to a variety of health benefits. These include better mental health outcomes for people with anxiety, low mood or depression, help in preventing stress responses and increasing in self esteem. For women, exercise has been linked to reduced pre-menstrual tension and improved body image. The effects are greatest for people who have problems in each of these areas, and some need more commitment to exercise than others (although most have evidence to support even positive benefits of low levels of exercise). As an all-round mental health tonic, it is almost unmatched (see also my forthcoming post on social cures as another good ‘un!). If you could put exercise in a pill and sell it, you’d make a fortune! Happily for us, doing exercise is also basically free :-). But how does it actually have all these amazing effects?

Goooooo serotonin and dopamine!

One way in which exercise helps us is through the production of important neurotransmitters called serotonin and dopamine. Production of these chemicals is increased when we exercise (along with other neurotransmitter, endorphins). Both are linked with positive affect and stress reduction. They do this either by increasing baseline levels or, for those who have a deficit of them to begin with, upping the levels to ‘normal’. Serotonin is the ‘good social’ chemical, decreasing hostility, and increasing prosocial behaviours 1. It also improves mood and is linked to decreasing depression 2. Dopamine is also thought of as a ’happiness’ drug – linked with positive mood and also better memory3. Evidence pretty clearly links exercise to serotonin, but the link isn’t quite as robust for dopamine (mostly being observed in animal models)4

And don’t forget the endorphins…

Heard of a ‘runners high’? Runner’s high is a kind of semi-blissed out state of extreme joy or euphoria which can occur during or shortly after exercise. It is caused by another neurotransmitter – endorphin. Endorphin are produced when your body undergoes physical / stress demands, including exercise5. Chemically, endorphin are form of opioid, (broadly similar to things like morphine or codedine)which offset pain (indeed they are known as a ‘natural painkiller’). They are also serious pleasure chemicals, also linked to fun things like eating, looking after your own kids, having sex and, for some people, shopping!6. Endorphin also acts as a mild sedative. Together, these effects can combine to give you a more positive, relaxed view of the world – important for managing stress7. The links between all of these neurotransmitters adn our brain’s reward circuity also means they are related to becoming addicted to a behaviour (including activities like exercise)8.

But it is not all about the drugs…

Neurotransmitters are a big part of the positive effects of exercise, but they are only part of the story. Focusing on an activity (such as the rhythm of your run, or the swing of a bat) are all forms of mindfulness, which can help calm and centre you. They often take place outside (which has a lot of benefits, not least of which is sunshine stimulates serotonin production!). It also acts as an avenue for you to develop beneficial social connections with other people and groups, and can be a source of positive self-affirmation when you are faced with criticism. So what are you waiting for?

Wait, don’t I need to run a marathon?

No – you just need to do 30 minutes exercise, 5 times a week. Something which gets your heart rate up (like a strenuous walk) is enough to start increasing neurotransmitter levels – not only during, but after exercise 9. Small changes in your daily routine should mean you can work this into your life without losing something else, so there really is no excuse!

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  1. Masters, R. D., & McGuire, M. T. (Eds.). (1994). The neurotransmitter revolution: Serotonin, social behavior, and the law. SIU Press. 
  2. Healy, D. (2015). Serotonin and depression. BMJ, 350, h1771. 
  3. Young, S. N. (2007). How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs. Journal of psychiatry & neuroscience: JPN, 32(6), 394. 
  4. Meeusen, R., & De Meirleir, K. (1995). Exercise and brain neurotransmission. Sports Medicine, 20(3), 160-188. 
  5. Harber, V. J., & Sutton, J. R. (1984). Endorphins and exercise. Sports Medicine, 1(2), 154-171. 
  6. Dunn, A. J. (1989). Psychoneuroimmunology for the psychoneuroendocrinologist: a review of animal studies of nervous system-immune system interactions. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 14(4), 251-274. 
  7. Amir, S., Brown, Z. W., & Amit, Z. (1980). The role of endorphins in stress: Evidence and speculations. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 4(1), 77-86. 
  8. Tomkins, D. M., & Sellers, E. M. (2001). Addiction and the brain: the role of neurotransmitters in the cause and treatment of drug dependence. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 164(6), 817-821. 
  9. National Institute of Health 

One thought on “The psychology of stress and exercise”

  1. Stress is not good for health. In fact it is hard on the body and directly affects immune function. But the best things about exercising each day is that it can strengthen the immune system and create a stronger defense against illness.

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