How Can Exercise Relieve Stress?

One key attribute that many of the world’s best athletes possess is the ability to “shut down.” What does this mean? To shut down? As humans, we were not made to be running at full capacity at all times. Our engines can only handle so much, and at some point, we will combust. In a world of go, go, go, perhaps the best medicine is to stop, take a deep breath, and focus on the present moment. 

While it is well known that exercise is one of the best forms of medicine for almost every ailment, sometimes it can also be a form of stress-inducing anxiety. The worry of missing a session, if you don’t have the motivation, or if you feel guilty for simply not wanting to work out some days. We all experience this from time to time, yes even professional athletes, but the trick is understanding your emotions and why you feel the way you do. More often than not, when you wake up some days and an alarming lack of motivation, perhaps it is best to listen and take the day off. Sometimes, while we may feel sluggish and unmotivated, the best course of action is to just start moving.

How Exercise Can Reduce Stress?

Exercise can become an escape for many individuals as well. Whether you work or inhabit high-stress environments, or need to break up a mundane routine, exercise can provide a new stimulus to help you reset. 

Choose Exercise That You Enjoy 

While this may seem intuitive, don’t get trapped into exercise that may cause you more stress. When you can enjoy what you are doing, then it will not seem like work, and this is what will ultimately allow you to relax and enjoy the moment. 

Change Your Scenery

Spend most of your time inside? Time to get outside and start moving. Just a change of scenery can help boost your mood and allow you to decompress.

“Jumping on the bike provides me with a sense of freedom. The ability to physically leave everything behind and propel myself forward using nothing but my own energy is a liberating experience, not to mention the sensory overload of sights, noises, smells, and accomplishments that the simple act of pedaling affords me. When I return home from a ride, the chaos that is ‘life’ no longer exists, I’m calm, relaxed, and content.” 

Ultra-Cyclist, Jack Thompson

Make it a Group Activity

Whether looking to join with friends or family, create an event or a scheduled weekly time where you can meet up with others that are supportive and uplifting. When you are able to exercise with others who are also excited about exercise, this can help all involved to push their limits! Be aware of surrounding yourself with individuals who may bring the mood and atmosphere down, after all, this is your time to decompress!

Promoting Healthy Fueling

When we feel good, there is a higher chance that we will make healthier choices when it comes to fueling. This idea is self-propagating since the healthier fueling will lead to more energized exercise and thus, the process repeats!  

What Type of Exercise?

Are all forms of exercise the best when it comes to unwinding? Certainly not. If you find yourself overworked, exhausted, and with increased anxiety levels, then setting out on the bike to hit an intense interval session may not be the best prescription. While it can be tempting to use bottled-up energy or emotions and release them on your pedals, the reality is these types of sessions can not only increase our fatigue but can also increase our stress if the workouts begin to steer downhill. Instead, focus on sessions where the goal is to recover, both physically….and mentally. 

It is well known that activities such as yoga are a great way to center yourself. These types of sessions can help you to focus on your breath and not worry about the multitude of thoughts that bombard your brain. When we center ourselves we slow down, focus on our breath, and begin to actually feel where we are in the moment. If you feel that this is too zen for you, then you can relate it to any sport you wish. If you think back to your best performances, can you recall where your mind was during it? Were you thinking about what happened prior to the event, were you worried about the outcome, or were you simply focused on each moment and fully committed? When we get ahead of ourselves whether in life or in sport, this is where we run into trouble. This is where sports and exercise can help us learn lessons about stress management that we can then apply to our lives outside of sports. Exercise and sports also teaches us how to focus only on the things that are in our control. We cannot control our family, friends, coworkers, or the plethora of other situations in our lives that cause us stress, but we can control how we respond (not react).

Training Routines and Stress Relief

Perhaps you find yourself in the following scenario: you want to exercise to reduce stress, but then stress yourself to find time to exercise?! Most of us have experienced this at one point or another, and the key to finding success: making it a routine. If you develop a set routine for your day, then you eliminate the need to stress about when and how to “fit” exercise into your day. Just like your work schedule or brushing your teeth. You habitually do this day in and out, why not make exercise part of it? 

Join a local club or group that meets at a certain day(s) and at certain times so that way you are locked into making this event part of your schedule. Set your clothes/gear out the night before so you have even one less decision to make in the morning, and that way have a harder time making any excuses as to why you are unable to fit exercise in your day!


Jeff Hoobler is an elite strength and endurance coach with over 30 years of experience coaching athletes of all levels, from beginners to world champions in a variety of sports. He has a degree in Sports Psychology and Exercise Science from the University of Kansas and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He is a USAC Cycling coach, MAT (Muscle Activation Techniques) therapist, professional bike fitter, and Foundations Training Instructor. In addition to coaching, Jeff is a competitive racer on the road, mountain bike, and cyclocross.

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