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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Man to Man Man to Man

How Exercise Helps You Relax

June 20, 2014

By Harvey B. Simon M.D.

Harvard Medical School

"Rest and relaxation" -- it's such a common expression that it has become a cliché. And although rest really can be relaxing, the pat phrase causes many men to overlook the fact that exercise can also be relaxing. It's true for most forms of physical activity, as well as for specific relaxation exercises.

Exercise is a form of physical stress. Can physical stress relieve mental stress? It can — if you learn to apply the stress of exercise in a controlled, graded fashion. Here's how.

The Mental and Physical Sides of Stress

Mental symptoms range from worry and irritability to restlessness and insomnia, anger and hostility, or sensations of dread and even panic.

Mental stress can also produce physical symptoms, such as:

  • Tense muscles that can result in fidgeting, taut facial expressions, headaches, neck and back pain
  • A dry mouth, producing unquenchable thirst or perhaps the sensation of a lump in the throat that makes swallowing difficult
  • Clenched jaw muscles that can produce jaw pain and headaches
  • Skin that is pale, sweaty and clammy
  • Intestinal symptoms that range from "butterflies" to heartburn, cramps or diarrhea
  • Frequent urination
  • A pounding pulse
  • Chest tightness
  • Rapid breathing that may be accompanied by sighing or repetitive coughing.
  • Hyperventilation that can lead to tingling of the face and fingers, muscle cramps, lightheadedness, and even fainting

The physical symptoms of stress are themselves distressing. In fact, the body's response to stress can feel so bad that it produces additional mental stress. During the stress response, then, mind and body can amplify each other's distress signals, creating a vicious cycle of tension and anxiety.

The root cause of stress is emotional. It's best controlled by gaining insight, reducing life problems that trigger stress, and modifying behavior. Mental health therapies (such as talk therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy) are time-honored ways to do this. But stress control can — and should — also involve the body.

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The Mental Benefits of Aerobic Exercise

The mental benefits of aerobic exercise have a neurochemical basis. Exercise reduces levels of the body's stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body's natural painkillers and mood elevators. Endorphins are responsible for the "runner's high" and for the feelings of relaxation and optimism that accompany many hard workouts.

Behavioral factors also contribute to the emotional benefits of exercise. As your waistline shrinks and your strength and stamina increase, your self-image will improve. You'll earn a sense of mastery, control, pride and self-confidence. Your renewed vigor and energy will help you succeed in many tasks. And regular exercise will help you achieve other important lifestyle goals.

Exercise and sports also provide opportunities for some solitude. Or to make friends and build networks. When your body is busy, your mind will be distracted from the worries of daily life. You'll be free to think creatively.

Almost any type of exercise will help. Many people find that using large muscle groups in a rhythmic, repetitive fashion works best; call it "muscular meditation" and you'll begin to understand how it works. Walking and jogging are good examples. Even a simple 20-minute stroll can clear the mind and reduce stress. But some people prefer vigorous workouts that burn stress along with calories; that's one reason elliptical trainers are so popular. And the same stretching exercises that help relax your muscles after a hard workout will help relax your mind as well (see below).

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Using Your Mind To Relax Your Body

A relaxed body will send signals of calm and control to your brain. This helps reduce mental tension.

Autoregulation exercises are a group of techniques designed to replace the spiral of stress with a cycle of repose. You're probably familiar with these:

Breathing exercises

Rapid, shallow, erratic breathing is a common response to stress. Slow, deep, regular breathing creates a feeling of relaxation. Here's how deep breathing exercises work:

  1. Breathe in slowly and deeply, pushing your stomach out so that your diaphragm is put to maximal use.
  2. Hold your breath briefly.
  3. Exhale slowly, thinking "relax."

Repeat the entire sequence 5 to 10 times, concentrating on breathing deeply and slowly.

You can practice this exercise 4 to 6 times a day — even on good days. Then, you'll be comfortable using it when you need it most.

Progressive muscle relaxation

Stressed muscles are tight, tense muscles. By learning to relax your muscles, you will be able to use your body to get rid of stress.

Muscle relaxation takes a bit longer to learn than deep breathing. It also takes more time. But it can be a useful part of your stress control program. Here's how it works:

Progressive muscle relaxation is best done in a quiet, secluded place. You should be comfortably seated or stretched out on a firm mattress or mat. Until you learn the routine, have a friend recite the directions or listen to them on a tape, which you can pre-record yourself.   

Progressive muscle relaxation focuses on each major muscle group. You start with your facial muscles and work your way down to your feet. Tighten each muscle and hold the contraction 20 seconds, then slowly release it. As the muscle relaxes, concentrate on the release of tension and the sensation of relaxation. Here's a 12- to 15-minute routine you can practice twice daily. You should experience some relief of stress in about 2 weeks.

  • Wrinkle your forehead and arch your eyebrows.
  • Close your eyes tightly.
  • Wrinkle your nose and flare your nostrils.
  • Push your tongue firmly against the roof of your mouth.
  • Grimace.
  • Clench your jaws tightly.
  • Tense your neck by pulling your chin down to your chest.
  • Arch your back.
  • Breathe in as deeply as you can.
  • Tense your stomach muscles.
  • Tense your buttocks muscles.
  • Tense your bicep muscles.
  • Tense your arms and clench your fists.
  • Press your feet down.
  • Lift up your toes.

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Exercise, Health and Stress

Few things are more stressful than illness. Regular physical activity helps prevent illness by lowering your blood pressure, improving your cholesterol and reducing your blood sugar. Exercise cuts the risk of heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, colon cancer, osteoporosis and fractures, obesity, depression and even dementia (memory loss). Exercise slows the aging process, increases energy and prolongs life.

Try to exercise nearly every day, unless you are ill. Aim for at least 30 to 40 minutes of moderate exercise, such as walking (about 2 miles a day). Or 15 to 20 minutes of vigorous exercise, such as running or a hard gym work-out. If you can do more, that's even better.

You can do it all at once or in 10-minute to 15-minute chunks, if that fits your schedule better. Add a little strength training and stretching 2 to 3 times a week, and you'll have an excellent, balanced program for health and stress reduction.

Popular beliefs aside, exercise is relaxing.

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Harvey B. Simon, M.D., is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and a member of the Health Sciences Technology Faculty at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the founding editor of the Harvard Men's Health Watch newsletter and author of six consumer health books, including The Harvard Medical School Guide to Men's Health (Simon and Schuster, 2002) and The No Sweat Exercise Plan, Lose Weight, Get Healthy and Live Longer (McGraw-Hill, 2006). Dr. Simon practices at the Massachusetts General Hospital; he received the London Prize for Excellence in Teaching from Harvard and MIT.

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