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How Exercise Buffers Against Stress and Builds Resilience

November 3, 2023
Learn the surprising way your body adapts to the stress of a workout for long-term health and well-being.
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By Susie Reiner, PhD, CSCS, EP-C

Can something be good and bad for you at the same time? That might be the case when it comes to stress. Stress gets a bad rap, but it could be your best ally when it’s in the form of exercise. Raising your heart rate or challenging your muscles in strength training might buffer the stress of your everyday life, building resilience along the way. 

Here’s how your workout can become a healthy and positive coping strategy for stress management, so you are ready to take on another day. 

What Happens When You Experience Stress

When you’re in a state of stress, whether in imminent danger or answering an urgent work email, your brain activates the fight or flight response. A natural survival mechanism, your sympathetic nervous system releases hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that raise blood pressure, increase your heart rate, make you more alert, and break down stored energy sources, so they are readily available. In a crisis, the system-wide changes in your body will help you. 

stressed woman at computer desk

However, with busy, chaotic lives and a constant connection to technology, life as we know it can be a string of minor stressors, like answering an email outside of your normal working hours, that lead to a chronic stress response. Experiencing chronic stress impairs your health and makes you ill-prepared when an actual stressful situation arises, like getting sick. In fact, research shows chronic stress is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, muscle loss, and even mental health disorders. Regular exercise can help to mitigate chronic stress. 

How Exercise Buffers Your Stress Response

Reminiscent of Nietzsche’s quote, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” exercise puts you in a state of stress that your body can react to and subsequently adapt. 

In the 1950s, Hans Selye, a Hungarian-Canadian endocrinologist, introduced the General Adaptation Syndrome after studying how the human body reacts to physical (and psychological) stressors.  He found that regardless of what type of stress stimulus is applied—unpleasant or rewarding—the human body goes through three phases: 

  1. Alarm phase: Homeostasis is disrupted and sends you into the fight or flight response.
  2. Resistance phase: Your body starts to recover from the stimulus but is still alert. 
  3. Exhaustion phase: Prolonged stress can drain your physical, mental, and emotional resources, putting you at risk for stress-related illness. 

If you take adequate rest and recovery alongside your exercise routine, the resistance phase bypasses the exhaustion phase, and you become stronger for it. 

General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) as identified by Hans Selye

Thus, regularly stressing these systems with exercise can produce beneficial adaptations to respond to acute stress more effectively. This cross-stressor adaptation explains that while increased during a workout, exercise reduces resting cortisol levels, heart rate, and blood pressure

Where Resilience Comes into the Picture

Resilience describes your ability to remain flexible during life’s setbacks. There are several forms of resilience that regular exercise can help foster: 

Physical Resilience: How your body adapts and recovers from injury and illness. Your lifestyle plays a significant role in physical resilience, including your sleep patterns, a nutritious diet, and regular exercise

Emotional Resilience:  Emotionally resilient people can manage their emotions and keep an optimistic perspective when navigating negative experiences. Exercise has been shown to improve emotional resilience by reducing stress reactivity.

Mental Resilience: When times are uncertain, mental resilience can help you confidently move forward with strong problem-solving skills. Research shows that exercise levels are directly related to resilience, regardless of someone’s sleep or mental health status. 

The bottom line: The powerful physical and mental health benefits of exercise improves your ability to cope with stress, providing various forms of resilience to deal with life challenges. The distraction of strength training and the rhythmic, heart-pumping nature of cardio like jogging or biking, can help clear your mind and simultaneously reduce stress. Creating a workout schedule, setting goals, and accomplishing these goals can help you build structure in other areas of your life. If you are struggling to cope with challenges, don't hesitate to talk to your healthcare provider for more support.