Is Exercise Always Good For Stress?

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I was so proud of my client today. He shared with me some of the big challenges he has with his business this coming year. Lot of risk. Lot of growth potential. Being in his early sixties he wasn’t sure he had the stamina to do it last year but that all changed when he started working out with us these past several months. Having not been a regular exerciser until he hired a GYMGUYZ personal trainer, he was seeing the immense benefits of regular exercise. Not only the improved body composition changes and endurance but also the positive effects it played on his overall mental well-being. I was so proud of him that he made the connection on his own as to where his new source of stamina and vigor was coming from. Pretty good stuff to say the least.

It got me thinking about the challenges we all face every day and the toll that stress takes on our bodies. It is pretty well documented that exercise is great for our stress. It gives us our “fight” back. We are all wired to experience fight or flight but unfortunately these days many of us have nowhere to put it. In prehistoric times, dinosaurs would initiate our fight or flight response. A caveman had no choice, either he fight or run for it as death was almost imminent. Today the dinosaur comes from all different places. It can be the difficult boss, the irate customer, someone trying to take over your company or put you out of business, even the person with road rage who really needs to get a life.

According to Psychology Tools, the fight or flight response is an automatic physiological reaction to an event that is stressful or frightening. Our sympathetic system stimulates the release of various hormones including adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol causing an increase in heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate. We can stay in our fight or flight state 20 to 60 minutes post threat, but the real challenge is that we have these elevated hormones in our blood stream and we need to do something with them (verywellmind, Nov, 2022). Once our parasympathetic system brings us back to our previous baseline, there is still work to be done. This is where exercise comes in.

We are all human. We are going to experience that rush of fight or flight but oftentimes we can’t act on it right away and it festers in our bodies wreaking havoc on our insides. The good news is there is a place to get our fight or flight out. Even if we can’t take care of it at the moment we can always do it later with exercise. Specifically intense exercise like weight training or high intensity interval cardio. The greater the stress, the greater the need for intense exercise. I remember when my son was in high school and I was teaching him how to properly workout. We would also talk about how to get your stress out. It only made sense when he was in high school to get a heavy bag and let him pound on it if he was having a bad day at school. After all, there can be lots of dinosaurs in high school, too.

Have you ever asked yourself the question when is it good to exercise to get out all that stress and when is it not such a good idea? Did you think you needed to exercise every time you were stressed? If you answered “yes”, you are partially correct but there’s a little more to it.

Firstly, you need to assess how stressed you are. When you are super stressed, exercise may in fact be the last thing you want to do. We need to remember exercise is a stressor in itself, and if your stress levels are high, intense exercise will only exacerbate the situation and it will take you longer to get to a relaxed state. If you hit the hard workouts too soon you may experience greater irritability, restlessness, poor sleep, anger, and a weakened immune system. It’s very likely your body will hit a wall and you’ll need more chill time than had you managed your stress properly in the first place.

The secret is to know your stress threshold for exercise. If you feel your stress is highly elevated it has been shown that mindfulness is a better practice than exercise. We need to relax our mind and take our mind off the things that are bugging us at that moment. Meditation, yoga, or sitting quietly will be more effective at that moment. If you feel you need to move, make sure the exercise is light. A casual walk, yoga, or tai chi will suffice, just remember not to overdo it. You need to bring yourself down to more of a relaxed state. Some meditation and a good night of sleep never hurts either.

You may be asking yourself, “When can I exercise with more intensity?” It is important to note that you will eventually need to exercise and get the “fight or flight” out, but you need to do it when you bring the stress volume down. Think of a radio dial. You just had it at 9 and when you get it to 6 or 7, then you’re good to go. This is the best time to hit that workout hard and get that stress out. You will feel all those great endorphins and get a totally new perspective on life!

Of course, for those of you who are accustomed to intense exercise and know no other way but to go hard all the time, start to listen to your body. It’s not always about training harder. It’s about training smarter. Train yourself to be in touch with your body. Find the fulcrum of your tipping scale on when to exercise and when to practice mindfulness. Learn when to push and when to chill. You’ll feel your old self before you know it and you won’t resent exercise!

As always if you enjoy reading our blogs, please circulate them on social media or share with a friend that could benefit. It’s the best way to get the word out there on the importance of exercise and is the best compliment you can ever give to us when you tell others about us. If you are new to exercise or have been thinking about working with a personal trainer, check us out at to sign up for your free fitness assessment. You can also find us at Facebook @GYMGUYZWestHartford or Instagram @gymguyzhartfordct.

Christian Silva, MS, CSCS is the local owner of GYMGUYZ. Specializing in in-home personal training, in-home stretching, nutrition coaching and wellness solutions for your company or community program.