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Does Exercise Help Relieve Stress?

By Cynthia Myers ; Updated April 18, 2017

Stress contributes to high blood pressure, headaches, fatigue, back pain, heart disease and difficulty sleeping. People under stress may experience anxiety or depression and have trouble in their relationships. Exercise helps relieve stress and can make you a healthier person.

Stress at the Cellular Level

Stress causes your cells to age faster, which may be one reason stress contributes to disease and lowered immunity. Scientists at the University of California San Francisco reported in May 2010 that as little as 42 minutes of exercise over three days could protect cells from premature aging. Your cells contain chromosomes that are wrapped in a protective sheath called a telomere. Stress shortens telomeres, decreasing their ability to protect chromosomes. Exercise lengthens telomeres, so they provide more protection.

Exercise and Relaxation

Exercise focuses your thoughts somewhere besides your problems. People talk about being "in the zone" when they play basketball, jog, ski, swim or engage in other exercise activities. They focus on the moment and what they're doing and not on stressful situations or intractable problems. This encourages relaxation and dissipates stress. Listening to music or exercising with friends can enhance this relaxation effect.

Measuring Effective Exercise

The American Heart Association recommends you exercise 30 to 60 minutes a day most days of the week for overall good health. You don't have to do this all in one hour-long block. You can take a walk at lunch, climb the stairs on your break and hit the treadmill while you watch the news. The women in the UCSF study exercised three days a week for fewer than 15 minutes a day and still enjoyed the stress-reducing effects of exercise.

Stress-Reducing Exercise

In order to protect cells, UCSF researchers discovered the exercise had to be vigorous enough to raise your heart rate. Think of the kind of exercise that causes you to break a sweat, such as a game of basketball or tennis, brisk walking, jogging, dancing or riding a bicycle. Even gardening or vigorous housework qualifies. To maximize stress reduction, find an activity you enjoy that helps you relax. Some people prefer a class with friends; others escape from stress with solo activities such as hiking.

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