Using exercise to manage stress

with advice from Diego Kim, PT, DPT

The holiday craziness is in full swing: Office parties and family gatherings. School performances and final exams. Impending travel and days away from work and your regular routine.

The end of the year can be overwhelming, and it’s not uncommon to be stressed out. While you might be tempted to grit your teeth and push through your crazy schedule, it’s better to acknowledge your stress and manage it in a healthy way, like through exercise.

A photograph of the back of a blonde woman, who faces a chalkboard full of mathematic equations. She holds her head as if she has a headache or is stressed out.

Exercise has been shown to help manage the hormones that can contribute to your stress, explains Diego Kim, a physical therapist at Physiquality member Coury and Buehler Physical Therapy in California. Exercise releases endorphins, the hormones that cause what’s known as a “runner’s high.” These hormones “prevent pain, fight depression, and boost a sense of positivity and relaxation,” says Diego, which all contribute to reduced stress.

Exercise also helps to lower levels of two hormones that can increase stress: cortisol and norepinephrine. Both hormones are released when a person is anxious. Cortisol turns on your body’s “natural alarm system,” limiting non-essential functions and increasing blood sugar within your system. Norepinephrine causes your heart, lungs and muscles to work and respond more quickly. Exercise can lower the levels of both of these hormones in your body, allowing it to return to its regular pace.

Two older white people, a woman and a man, running outside.

Beyond these systemic effects, sometimes we just need a break. Diego notes that exercise is a form of meditation, clearing your mind of whatever is troubling you. And while it seems counterintuitive to add an hour of exercise to an already busy calendar, you’re much more likely to commit to that Pilates class or CrossFit session if it’s put into your schedule or you’re meeting a friend there.

Keep in mind that almost any type of exercise will reduce stress. Some people might need to slow down for a relaxing yoga class. Others might want a high-intensity cardio class, punching away problems. Even a short walk can clear your mind and work your heart enough to reinvigorate you for whatever lies ahead.

Family of Asian descent walks on a sidewalk in a city under the shadow of cherry blossoms: A dad and his two children.

The important thing is to acknowledge that it’s OK to feel overwhelmed and to take a break. Talk to your friends or family if you need help with holiday commitments or if feel you need to cut something from the calendar. Plan ahead as much as you can to reduce last-minute stress. And if fitting in an hour of exercise is a challenge, do it in shorter increments. Remember that self-care is just as important as caring for those around you.

Do you need a physical therapist to help with creating an exercise routine? Use our locator below to find a Physiquality physical therapist near you.

Thank you to our contributors:

Diego Kim, PT, DPT, is a physical therapist at Coury and Buehler Physical Therapy, a Physiquality member clinic with seven locations in Orange County, California. Diego came to physical therapy first as a patient, then as a PT aide, and finally as a therapist with a doctorate in physical therapy. He enjoys working out and playing basketball, trying new restaurants, and discovering new cultures through travel.

Mayo Clinic.

Kim, Diego. How can exercise help manage stress? Coury and Buehler Physical Therapy, July 13, 2018.

Exercising to relax. Harvard Men’s Health Watch, July 13, 2018.

Walk more, be healthier. Physiquality, March 7, 2018.

Working out to relieve stress. American Heart Association, January 9, 2017.

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