The connection between exercise and stress and how you can benefit from it

The connection between exercise and stress and how you can benefit from it

22 Oct 2021

Belonging to today’s fast-paced world comes with its own unique challenges, namely, Stress, which has now become an inevitable part of our daily lives. Studies have underlined the importance and benefits of exercise especially for stress relief through physical activity and a healthy diet. In managing stress, we should first understand what it is, its causes and ways to overcome it.

What is stress?

Certain events, whether real or perceived, cause stress (2), which can lead to severe physiological conditions like cognitive deficiencies and many other effects (14).

Stress is especially relevant today because of the prevalence of COVID-19 (18). More people have started to experience stress as the pandemic has brought about job losses; an increased sense of fear of the virus and fear for the health of oneself and their families; and loneliness, as many are forced to stay indoors.

In order to cope, many people have turned to hobbies, particularly regular exercise to reduce stress. As will be discussed later on in this article, exercise and stress have a special relationship in which the former regulates the latter.

What are the different types of stress?

Here are the common types of stress that we can be at risk of experiencing daily and that tends to affect the quality of life.

Exercise and stress

Acute stress

This type of stress is caused by short events such as an argument or getting stuck in bad traffic (14).

Acute episodic stress

This is caused by frequent acute events, such as work deadlines (14).

Chronic stress

While the first two types are caused by surface events, chronic stress stems from persistent events, such as unemployment or family conflict (14).

Is stress bad?

Despite the negative connotation of the term “stress”, research on animal models has shown that it does serve a beneficial purpose, but only up to a certain extent. In general, researchers believe that stress allows animals to adapt to their environment (19).

Lack of stress could lead to boredom and even depression, while just the right amount of stress could make you optimally alert, and elevate your behavioral and cognitive performance. In simpler terms, acute stress paves the way for improved brain performance (19).

What are the symptoms of stress?

Here are some of the physiological and behavioral symptoms of stress (15):

  • Rapid heart rate
  • Increased mental alertness
  • Change in libido
  • Digestive problems
  • Chest pain
  • Headache
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness, lack of focus
  • Social withdrawal
  • Substance misuse
  • Over or undereating
  • Sleep problems

How can you manage stress?

The link between exercise and stress is a widely studied one. Evidence has shown that physical activity reduces stress. Exercise produces endorphins, which are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators.

It improves cholesterol, lowers blood sugar levels, blood pressure, and slashes the risk of various health conditions and complications (16). Exercise also lowers hormone levels, namely adrenaline and cortisol (14) and has various health benefits to improve the quality of life.

What exercises are best to reduce stress?

Choosing an exercise programme that is wholesome and engages all the major muscle groups is an ideal way to combat stress.

Aerobic exercise

The mechanism between this form of exercise and stress is that the former can fend off depression, stimulate and calm, and has even been tested in clinical trials as treatment for anxiety disorders and clinical depression (17).

Meditation and deep breathing

Intentional and deep breathing controls your respiration in such a way that it mimics and eventually adopts a relaxed state (16).

On a biochemical level, inhaling and exhaling slowly allows your parasympathetic nervous system to calm down. Yoga is one such exercise that makes use of deep breathing as its main mind-focusing techniques. According to research on the subject, meditation stops the shortening of telomeres, which are protein structures that get shorter as you age. Telomere shortening can result in cell death and inflammation and is related to a number of health conditions (14).

Exercise and stress

On the cellular level, a telomere is the end of a chromosome (genetic material). With each division of a cell, telomeres shorten to the point that they are so short they can not divide anymore. In cancer cells (which have higher capacity for division), the telomeres are long such that they continue dividing and go past their normal lifespan, thus increasing the number of cancer cells in the body (20).

Yoga, in particular, has gained immense popularity, as it has been touted as a form of stress-busting exercise that targets not only the body but the mind (14).

Mental exercise and stress interact just as physical exercise and stress do.

Strength training

This form of exercise builds body strength, promotes bone growth, helps in weight control, improves balance and posture and lessens pain in joints (17).

Balance exercises

This type of exercise helps prevent falls in older age especially as vision, inner ear and leg muscles and joints tend to wear down.

Other ways to help relieve stress

Work-life balance

Finding a balance between personal life and work is indeed a juggling act and admittedly a struggle for many. Vacations by yourself or with your family or friends, as well as “me-time” can go a long way to relieve the pressure of daily life.

Better sleeping habits

Nurturing better sleep habits is highly helpful in reducing stress. A deep sleep stage, also known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, helps to regulate your mood and enhance your memory.

Balanced diet

Under stress, the body expends more energy. But, more than ever, it needs a strengthened immune system. Time and time again, a large body of research has proven that consuming the proper amounts of macro- and micro-nutrients is the key to overall health. Pair a balanced diet with exercise, and stress can be effectively managed (14).

However, sometimes getting the right nutrition is harder than it sounds. We are surrounded by fast-food chains that suit our get-up-and-go lifestyles; more often than not, the food we consume on a daily basis lack the nutrients essential for optimal health. On top of a healthy and well-balanced diet, supplementation can help ensure that you meet your nutrient needs.

Supplements to help with stress

Here are some supplements you can consider as part of healthy living to manage stress effectively.


Also known as Indian ginseng (scientific name: Withania somnifera), this is a herb used in the Indian Ayurvedic system of medicine, typically as a tonic to calm the nerves. It is classified as an adaptogenic herb and was studied for its stress-fighting properties.

An adaptogen is a substance that helps the body adapt to stressors. It helps stabilise physiological processes when you are stressed. Adaptogens regulate homeostasis (the state of equilibrium within the body) through actions related to the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis, known in shorthand as the HPA axis. This axis controls the mediators of stress response, like heat shock proteins (Hsp70), stress-activated c-Jun N-terminal protein kinase (JNK-1) and nitric oxide (NO) (1). In other words, the HPA axis is central to homeostasis, stress response, energy metabolism and neuropsychiatric function (4). For this reason, ashwagandha supports a healthy stress response in the body and promotes the body’s adaptation to stress.

Ayurvedic medicine maintains that ashwagandha supplements relieves stress and enhances the immune system, thus contributing to longevity. Other benefits include slowing of premature ageing, stabilisation, and increased resistance to external stressors. Collectively, this is known as the “antistress-adaptogenic effect (2).” Similar studies show the same results at high concentrations of the herb (3).

It also decreases symptoms of stress: a study done on rats displayed higher stamina during swimming endurance tests. The study found that the herb prevented changes of ascorbic acid and cortisol content in the adrenal gland. Further study showed that pre-treatment with ashwagandha resulted in protection against stress-induced gastric ulcers.

Exercise and stress-reducing supplements like ashwagandha may improve overall health.


This micronutrient may support general health and wellbeing. The level of magnesium in the body is suggested to have an inverse relationship with anxiety. Studies indicate that a deficiency in this nutrient has been seen to contribute to affective disorders. Among its other properties, it has also been found to control HPA axis activity.

In light of this, exercise and stress relievers such as magnesium could be a beneficial pairing.

As a vitamin essential to the brain’s biochemistry, a lack of magnesium could cause different adverse neuromuscular and psychiatric symptoms (6). Research showed that there was a marked relationship between low magnesium intake and certain disorders, specifically in young adults (7).

B complex vitamins

Vitamins are nutrients found in food and are needed for the body to perform certain functions and maintain health. Water-soluble vitamins, to which B vitamins belong, are not found in the body and are eliminated via urine. These need to be consumed daily. There are eight in total:

  • B1: Thiamin

This vitamin contributes to normal appetite, muscle contract and conduction.

  • B2: Riboflavin

This vitamin promotes growth and cell development.

  • B3: Niacin

This vitamin helps in energy production and important cellular functions.

  • B6: Pyridoxine

This vitamin contributes to red blood cell formation and production of neurotransmitters and hemoglobin. It also behaves like an antioxidant molecule.

  • Folate or folic acid

Like B6, folate also helps in blood cell formation. It regulates homocysteine levels which in turn reduces the risk of heart diseases.

  • B12: cobalamin

This vitamin takes care of the nervous system.

  • Pantothenic acid

This vitamin too helps in energy production, hormone formation and metabolism of fats, proteins and carbohydrates.

  • Biotin

This vitamin releases the energy from carbohydrates and aids in the metabolism of fats, proteins and carbohydrates (8).

B vitamins support a healthy stress response in the body. A study that looked at the association between B vitamins and stress found that those given B complex treatment experienced reduced confusion three months later, compared to those given just the placebo (9).

Exercise and stress-busting B vitamins may be great for managing daily pressures.

Vitamin B12

This particular member of the B complex maintains and supports general health and wellbeing as it ensures the health of blood cells and nerve cells. It also helps form DNA.

B12 also prevents a condition called “megaloblastic anemia”, which weakens and tires out the afflicted person. Different amounts of the vitamin are needed in every developmental stage; for adults, 2.4 micrograms are recommended daily.

It is found in animal-derived foods and fortified plant-based foods. These can also be consumed in multivitamin supplements.

A lack of the B12 vitamin could manifest in heart palpitations, loss of appetite and weight, infertility, balance problems, confusion, poor memory and a sore tongue or mouth (11).

Calcium plus

This particular nutrient supports general health and wellbeing. Apart from being responsible for healthy bones, calcium enables nerves to deliver messages from different parts of the body to the brain. It also helps blood vessels transport blood, and release hormones and enzymes in the body.

A lack of calcium could lead to a condition wherein the bones become porous and fragile.

Although calcium absorption lessens as you get older, it can be aided by consuming the amounts recommended for one’s age, coupled with an active lifestyle (10).

Ginkgo and Brahmi

Brahmi (scientific name: Bacopa monnieri) and Ginkgo biloba are both adaptogenic herbs. Ginkgo and Brahmi have the capability to decrease symptoms of stress and relieve symptoms of mild anxiety.

Brahmi, like ashwagandha, has been used in the Ayurvedic medicinal system as a tonic for mental health. It reduces stress by lifting your mood and reducing cortisol levels. A study treated animal models with different doses of Brahmi, and found that it had anxiolytic activity similar to that of some western anxiety treatments.

In fact, researchers found that clinical use of Brahmi was preferable to benzodiazepines as it promoted cognition whereas the latter had an amnesic effect (12).

Meanwhile, Ginkgo biloba was previously seen to be clinically effective in promoting nervous system health, brain function and cognitivie performance in ageing individuals. Studies also suggested that it could improve the body’s adaptation to stress (13).

What is the bottomline on exercise and stress?

Stress is a part of everyday life especially in the new normal. Stress is good to some extent but there are ways to deal with it successfully. Exercise and stress relief methods, plus techniques such as meditation, work-life balance and strength training can help. Exercise and stress-reducing supplements may also be beneficial for overall health.

Exercise and stress

If you’re ready to beat stress and improve your health, consider adding Vitable vitamins to your healthy lifestyle regimen. With this supplement subscription, you can get personalised vitamin packs delivered right to your doorstep. Our vitamin delivery provides customisable vitamin packs in Australia.

Find out more about other areas that the above supplements can help you with:

Ashwagandha | Magnesium | B complex | Calcium Plus | Vitamin B12 | Ginkgo and Brahmi

*Always read the label. Follow the directions for use. If symptoms persist, talk to your health professional. Vitamin and/or mineral supplements should not replace a balanced diet.


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2.  Biswajit A., PhD, Hazra, J., PhD, Mitra, A., MD, Abedon, B., PhD, & Ghosal S., PhD. "A Standardized Withania Somnifera Extract Significantly Reduces Stress-Related Parameters in Chronically Stressed Humans: A Double-Blind, Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Study."  JANA, Vol. 11, No. 1. Published 2008 on Accessed 13 Sept 2021.

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8. Clifford, J., Curely, J. "Water-Soluble Vitamins: B-Complex and Vitamin C Fact Sheet." Published Dec 2019 on . Accessed 13 Sept 2021.

9.  Stough, C., et. al. "The effect of 90 day administration of a high dose vitamin B-complex on work stress." National Center for Biotechnology Information. Published on 8 Sept 2011 on . Accessed 13 Sept 2021.

10. "Calcium Fact Sheet for Consumers." National Institutes of Health. Published 22 Mar 2021 on . Accessed 13 Sept 2021.

11. "Vitamin B12 Fact Sheet for Consumers." Published 7 Jul 2021 on . Accessed 13 Sept 2021.

12. Bhattacharya, SK, Ghosal S. "Anxiolytic activity of a standardized extract of Bacopa monniera: an experimental study." Published Apr 1998. Phytomedicine: International Journal of Phytotherapy and Phytopharmacology5(2):77-82. doi: 10.1016/S0944-7113(98)80001-9. Accessed 13 Sept 2021.

13. Markus, CR, Lammers, JH. "Effects of Ginkgo biloba on corticosterone stress responses after inescapable shock exposure in the rat." Published Dec 2003. Pharmacology, Biochemistry, and Behavior 76(3-4):487-92. doi: 10.1016/j.pbb.2003.09.002. Accessed 13 Sept 2021.

14. "Stress and Health." Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Published 2020 on . Accessed 13 Sept 2021.  

15. "Stress symptoms: Effects on your body and behavior. Mayo Clinic. Published 24 Mar 2021 on,%20Tobacco%20use%20%203%20more%20rows%20 . Accessed 13 Sept 2021.

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17. "The 4 most important types of exercise." Harvard Health Publishing. Published 20 Aug 2019 on . Accessed 13 Sept 2021.

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19. "Researchers find out why some stress is good for you." Berkeley News. Published 16 Apr 2013 on . Accessed 14 Sept 2021.

20. Sagre, JA, PhD. "Telomere." National Human Genome Research Institute. Published on . Accessed 14 Sept 2021.