Is there anything that exercise can’t do? 

Along with helping us to sleep, think better and become more fit, working out on a regular basis is an excellent way to reduce stress.

Some Stress is Good

Stress is a completely natural part of life. Without it, you wouldn’t know whether to run or fight in a dangerous situation and believe it or not, in small amounts, it can be beneficial. 

Stress helps our brain become better equipped at handling new stressors through occasional bouts of exposure. It’s similar to strength training. Like lifting heavy, feeling a surge of adrenaline induced panic may not feel good in the moment, but it can turn us into Hercules on a psychological and physiological level. 

“Some amounts of stress are good to push you just to the level of optimal alertness, behavioral and cognitive performance,” says Daniela Kaufer, an associate professor of Integrative Biology at the University of California, Berkeley. As part of a research project, she and her colleagues conducted an animal-based experiment to measure how stress affected the brain. 

In a two-week study, Kaufer and the other researchers found that small exposures to stressful situations caused the rodents' stem cells to increase. As new nerve cells grew, so did their mental performance. Researchers concluded that in the right amount, stress could be good for you. 

But of course, this health bonus only happens when stress is “acute” or brief. Most of us experience the chronic kind and that is where problems arise.

Chronic Stress Equals Bad Health 

The consequences of dealing with stress around the clock are as long as the day itself. Some of them include:

- High Blood Pressure 

- Heart Cardiovascular Disease 

- Anxiety and Depression 

- Poor Sleep and Insomnia 

- Stroke 

- Digestive Disorders 

- Fatigue 

- Mood Swings 

- Colds 

- Respiratory Disorders 

- Weight Loss and Weight Gain 

- Brain Fog and Memory Loss 

See what we mean? 

Although the ideal solution would be to make your work and personal life hassle free, that’s generally not practical. Fortunately, exercise is a tool that most of us have at our disposal and one of the best defenses against chronic stress. 

No, it may not be the magic pill you were hoping for, and it’s not always the most convenient solution. But implementing a fitness routine is a scientifically proven way to combat the side-effects of a pressure-filled life. 

Check out some of the ways exercise beats stress. We’re willing to bet that after you’re through, you’ll be pulling on your sneakers and heading straight to the gym.

Exercise Helps Your Immune System 

Have you ever noticed how when you have a ton of stuff to do that you’re suddenly struck with a case of the sniffles? It’s because when we’re stressed for long periods of time our immune system becomes weakened. 

Most of this is due to cortisol, the stress hormone responsible for weight gain and increased blood pressure. Along with keeping the body in a suspended state of fight or flight, it’s been shown to lower our production of white blood cells which are part of the body’s natural defense system. But exercising regularly can stop it in its tracks. 

Along with slowing the release of cortisol, working out increases our white blood cell count. This means that even if you have a lot on your plate, making time to exercise may help fight off colds and other infections. Best of all, it doesn’t have to cut into your schedule. According to experts, you only need 12 minutes of intense activity to gain the immune boost that exercise provides.

Exercise Helps Stress Related Weight Gain

This isn’t only about emotional eating. It’s well established that along with causing your immune system to take a hit, cortisol also promotes excess abdominal fat. 

Whether you care about having a little fluff around your mid-section or not, abdominal fat is considered problematic by most medical professionals. It’s linked to chronic disease. Even if you’re otherwise lean or a healthy weight for your age and height, carrying what is also known as visceral fat can be a precursor to Type II diabetes, heart disease, stroke and other health complications. 

Yet again, exercise can help with this. According to medical experts, engaging in aerobic activity will not only make your cardiovascular system stronger but will trim your waistline. Besides burning extra calories, working out will lower cortisol levels. This not only means that you can look forward to feeling more relaxed but enjoy the additional perk of having your body less likely to store fat around your mid-region.

But wait. There’s more good news. If you actually are someone who goes looking for the Hagen Diaz when having a bad day, opting to sweat first may soften that inclination. According to fitness experts, exercise can stops the habit of stress eating by acting as a replacement. 

Next time you’re overwhelmed, reach for a jump rope instead of a bag of chips. The physical exertion will make you feel calmer and may lead to you adopting better coping skills. In fact, according to one study [1], if you want to introduce healthier habits into your life, exercising can act as a tipping point. Researchers found when people exercised, they were more likely to make better dietary choices than those who didn’t.

Exercise Literally Makes Us Feel Better 

No one feels crappy when leaving the gym, and there’s a reason for that. 

Along with giving a sense of accomplishment, when we exercise the body releases enkephalins and endorphins. They’re the feel-good hormones responsible for making us feel energized and happy. This may make working out the best medicine to take when feeling anxious. 

But it’s not just about good feelings. During physical activity, the brain releases the protein BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor) which protects and repairs it from the damage that occurs during the stress response. In short, going for a run or taking a spin class can literally make your body feel like it was never distressed. It’s kind of like nature’s undo button. 

There’s also an emotional component to exercise that’s worth mentioning. When we set and meet physical goals, we feel better about ourselves and therefore happier. Along with being fun, exercise can lead to better self-esteem, more confidence, better body image and a sense of being more capable. According to ACE Fitness, just 2 days of working out can be all it takes to have a healthier connection with yourself and to love your body more.

Exercise Fights Brain Fog

If you need another reason to give exercise a shot, consider that it can make you smarter. 

You read that right. Research has shown that when we workout, the size of our hippocampus (the part of our brain responsible for learning and memory) becomes larger. 

You may have experienced forgetting simple things when there’s a lot on your mind. This could be because of inflammation and its connection to memory loss, both of which are part of the stress response. Exercise can help prevent this. When we workout, a chemical reaction takes place that not only reduces inflammation but triggers the growth of new blood vessels and brain cells. If you’re chronically losing your keys or forget to pick up the dry cleaning, a walk around the block may be the very thing to jog your memory.

What Are The Best Exercises For Stress? 

While any exercise is a positive, specific types have been connected to certain stress reducing benefits.  

According to the Anxiety Depression Association of America, just 5 minutes of aerobic activity can have an anti-anxiety producing effect. One study [2] even showed that high-intensity training can have a greater impact on stress reduction than lower impact activities. 

If you’re not into HIIT or running, don’t worry. Even a walk can do the trick, provided that it’s brisk enough to elevate your heart rate. Grabbing your mat and getting your namaste on can also be beneficial. Besides teaching mindfulness, practicing yoga has been shown to be a great stress reliever.

How Much Exercise Do I Need? 

Now that you’re ready to put on your Nikes, you may be wondering how much exercise you need to completely relax. And it isn’t much. According to the Mayo Clinic, you only need 75 minutes of vigorous weekly activity to effectively manage stress. 

This doesn’t need to be done in one session either. To have a well-rounded fitness routine, most experts recommend doing a combination of cardio, weight training, and flexibility. So really, you can divide those heart pounding sessions into bite sized activities like 20-minute bike rides or power walks on your lunch break.

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[1] University of Texas at Austin. (2019, January 30). Want healthier eating habits? Start with a workout. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 2, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/01/190130112728.html
[2] Sweating away depression? The impact of intensive exercise on depression. Affect Disord. 2016 Aug;200:218-21. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2016.04.030. Epub 2016 Apr 20.