Physical Activity for Stress Relief

Monday is an opportunity to start fresh and to incorporate healthy behaviors into your week. Use this Monday to see how physical activity can help manage stress.

Aerobic and endurance exercises can help the body deal with stress and, perhaps counterintuitively, help it relax. As a result, walking, jogging and other repetitive activities are sometimes called muscular meditation.1 Exercise has been shown to help maintain mental fitness while decreasing overall levels of tension, and to elevate and stabilize mood, improve sleep, and improve self-esteem. Even short bursts of aerobic exercise can stimulate anti-anxiety effects.2 And slightly longer workouts have been shown to produce subtle mood benefits for hours after the activity.3 Aerobic exercise has been shown to treat depression and may help treat those suffering from seasonal affective disorder.4 Exercise often tops the list of recommendations to alleviate the symptoms of stress, even for those who are not athletically inclined.5

The body reacts to stress by releasing adrenaline, which increases the heart rate and blood pressure as a part of the body’s “fight or flight” response.6 Left unmanaged, stress can lead to damage to the cardiovascular system and other physiological disorders. Some people attempt to manage stress through coping behaviors that are not healthy choices such as drinking alcohol, smoking, or overeating that can lead to negative outcomes. Exercise on the other hand, can help manage and reduce stress while protecting against heart disease by reducing blood pressure, strengthening the heart, and maintaining a healthy weight.7

Activities to beat stress

Tai Chi is a traditional Chinese exercise based on movement, breathing and mindfulness. More than 500 trials and 120 systematic reviews have shown the health benefits of Tai Chi. The practice has been shown to increase well-being, prevent falls, aid cardiac and stroke rehabilitation, improve sleep and relieve depression.8 Tai Chi has been shown to be an effective stress management tool and is a potential treatment for reducing anxiety, depression, and low mood.9

Group exercises have both a physical and social component that may have multiple health benefits.  One study suggested there are longevity benefits of group sports. Researchers found that social exercises, like tennis, badminton and soccer were associated with the best longevity.10

Yoga has been shown to decrease stress and reduce anxiety by lowering the heart rate and blood pressure and slowing down respiration. It can also prepare the body for stressful situations and is associated with other healthy lifestyle behaviors.11


For more tips and resources to promote DeStress Monday, visit our Resources page.

For more information about how a Monday cue can support behavior change, visit The Monday Campaigns Research page.

[1] Exercising to relax. 2011. Harvard Health Publishing.

[2] Physical Activity Reduces Stress. Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

[3] Graves, G. 2012. How Exercise Can Make You Happy (in Just 20 Minutes!). Self.

[4] Roecklein, K., Rohan, K. 2005. Seasonal Affective Disorder, An Overview and Update. Psychiatry.

[5] Mayo Clinic Staff. 2016. Stress relievers: Tips to tame stress. Mayo Clinic.

[6] Stress and Heart Health. 2014. American Heart Association.

[7] Stress and your heart. 2013. Harvard Health Publishing.

[8] Huston, P. and McFarlane, B. 2016. Health benefits of tai chi: What is the evidence? Can Fam Physician. 2016 Nov;62(11):881-890.

[9] Abbot, R., Lavretsky, H. 2014. Tai Chi and Qigong for the Treatment and Prevention of Mental Disorders. Psychiatr Clin North Am. 2013 Mar; 36(1): 109–119.

[10] Schnohr, P. et al. 2018. Various Leisure-Time Physical Activities Associated With Widely Divergent Life Expectancies: The Copenhagen City Heart Study. Mayo Clinic Proceedings. Volume 93, Issue 12, Pages 1775–1785.

[11] Lakkireddy, D. et al. 2013. Effect of yoga on arrhythmia burden, anxiety, depression, and quality of life in paroxysmal atrial fibrillation: the YOGA My Heart Study. Journal of the American College of Cardiology.