Using Fitness to Tackle Stress & Improve Mental Health

April is Stress Awareness Month, the annual period in which health experts join forces to boost awareness on both the causes and cures for what the World Health Organsaition (WHO) call “the health epidemic of the 21st century”.

In this article we explain why fitness could be your secret weapon and shares a stress-busting plan of attack you can put to the test.

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Why Does Stress Matter?

Are you continually tail-chasing? Juggling just too many things? Feeling a little stressed midst all?

According to Perkbox’s UK Workplace Stress Survey 2018, 91% of us experience work-related stress.

The employee engagement company revealed ‘work’ to be the top stress-driver, with 59% of the 3,000 British workers aged 18+ surveyed experiencing it (vs. 46% and 45% for family and money, respectively). More men report experiencing work-related stress (50% vs. 38% for women) and Cardiff, Wolverhampton and London were revealed to be the UK’s stress hotspots (at 70%, 64% and 59%, respectively). 

Millennials are suffering the most, with nearly three quarters (73%) feeling the pressures of work stress, compared to only 24% of over 55s, as they head into retirement.

Virgin Pulse's HRA Data also shows that people who are stressed at work are 26% more likely to leave and 8.2% less productive than those who aren’t.

So what?

Stress costs!

We feel sleepy, argumentative and anxious when stressed with work (cited as the top 3 impacts – 65%, 59% and 34%, respectively – in Perkbox’s Wellness eBook). Moreover, 49% of all working days lost in 2016-2017 were due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety (HSE Labour Force Survey, 2017).


How Can Fitness Help?

Physical activity positively impacts a number of physiological and psychological mechanisms (Anderson & Shivakumar 2013).

When you exercise, your physiology alters as the body releases chemicals called endorphins (Howlett et al. 1984Boecker et al. 2008). These endorphins bring a mild opiate ‘high’ and corresponding feeling of well-being, and light analgesia (Belluzi & Stein 1977Stephano et al. 2000). Physical activity has also been proven to improve sleep (Kline, 2014), the single biggest effect that stress has on British workers (65% of those Perkbox surveyed cited this impact).

Psychologically, being exposed to the biological symptoms feared (e.g. rapid heartbeat) through exercise without any serious threat can also alleviate anxiety (McWilliams and Asmundson, 2001). Exercise can also reduce stress by boosting the belief you can manage potential threats, as well as acting as a distraction (Petruzzello et al., 1991)

Exercise also has broader mental health benefits. In the over 50s, both aerobic and resistance exercise have been shown to boost cognitive function (Northey, et al, 2017). Exercise has also been shown to have beneficial effects on mood (Cureton, 1963; Folkins, 1976) and could become a complementary or alternative therapy for depression (Blumenthal et al., 1999; Dunn et al., 2005).

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What Type of Fitness Works Best?

That depends on you.

Mind-body exercise like yoga or pilates can strengthen your body’s natural relaxation response and bring you into a healthy balance. In comparison, high-intensity activities (e.g. running or spinning) will do more to raise the heart-rate and release endorphins.

Whether walking or a regular gym-workout, yoga or tai-chi, the key really is making it happen. Even if fitness is your excuse to leave the office on time (e.g. pack a racket and tell your boss you’ve got a game booked at 6pm) it could still get you out the office on time!

Whatever you go with, remember to consider the time of day you do it. Raising the heart-rate in high-intensity activity, for example, may not be a smart move a few hours before bed.

As Julie Wright from WeSleep UK explains: “exercise increases our body temperature and, if prolonged, it also raises our cortisol levels” – the primary hormone released by the body during times of stress. Julie adds, “That said, low intensity exercise actually reduces cortisol. And, if you find that evening exercise doesn't negatively affect your sleep, then there's no reason to make a change. Everyone is different”.

On that note, there is more to life than fitness. If timing rules out your preferred fitness option, why not find the other stress-busting activities which work best for you. Meditation apps like Calm have helped millions already, alongside more conventional approaches like journaling and talking with friends.

What Can You Do Now?

Aside from asking your employer for more stress-busting support, what can you do?

Make a plan. Take action.

Whatever your relationship with stress, your solution must be unique to you. How does the rest of your week look? When will you workout? Which days will you rest and recover? What will work for you?

You have the science, ideas and inspiration to get started. You must now wage the war on stress. Good luck!