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Your Inner Athlete: 3 Ways Exercise Helps You in Coping with Stress

By Dr. Haley Perlus on November 24, 2014, categorized in Endurance, Strength + Conditioning

Your Inner Athlete: 3 Ways Exercise Helps You in Coping with Stress

By Dr. Haley Perlus

When you take 20 athletes of equal ability and give ten of them mental training, the ten with mental training will outperform the others every time. Whether you’re an athlete in competition, a health enthusiast, or new to sport and fitness, Sport Psychologist Dr. Haley Perlus shares how professional athletes mentally train to maximize results­—and how you can apply these insights to your life. Read on to empower yourself to take control of your mind, overcome fear and doubt, and realize your true potential.

We’ve all experienced those days when stress rears its ugly head. One stressful event can set the tone for the entire day, perhaps the rest of the week. The harder you try to ignore it and keep powering through, the worse the negative thoughts, feelings, and fatigue get, wreaking havoc on your nutrition and overall health. The good news is that physical activity can immediately shake off the blues, freeing up mental space and energy to tackle your to-dos and even have some fun while you’re at it.

Here are three reasons why exercise should be one of the primary tools in your stress toolbox:

1. Exercise enhances your coping self-efficacy

Stress is what we feel when we believe we’re not in control or that we can’t cope with a certain situation. Exercise helps because it gives us a quick boost of confidence to successfully meet the challenges at hand.1 It provides the perfect opportunity to immediately master something meaningful–be it a 30 minute walk outside with a friend, discovering handstand in yoga, performing a quick set of pull ups, etc. In turn, these feelings of mastery help us to feel in control of the rest of our day.

2. Exercise gives you a healthy “high”

When we do something that feels good, our bodies release chemicals such as dopamine, norepinephrine, epinephrine, endorphins, and serotonin. Together, these chemicals produce a “high” that carries emotional energy as if to say “more please, because that was soooo good!” In the past, you may have experienced these highs in an unhealthy way by making late night visits to the pantry for your favorite carbohydrate binge that always leaves you low on energy and even more stressed from overeating. Just as dopamine is released while eating a bowl (or carton) of ice cream, it’s also released during a fabulous indoor cycle or yoga class–this time producing a healthy high with the added satisfaction from getting your fitness in that day.

3. The stress benefits from exercise last

Sometimes when we feel stressed, anxious, and overwhelmed, all we want to do is plant ourselves on the couch and take a nice quiet break for an hour. Although an hour rest will reduce anxiety; to stay positive and energized for the rest of the day, using that time to exercise is the better choice. Whereas 40 minutes of quiet rest will improve your mood for up to one half hour, 40 minutes of exercise will improve your mood and create more energy for up to 24 hours.2 This is not to say that you must exercise for at least 40 minutes. Just know that time spent exercising, compared to the same amount of time devoted to rest, will give you longer lasting benefits.

Researchers continue to investigate the best types of exercise for coping with stress. Be assured that anaerobic, aerobic, short, and longer bouts of exercise will all help you reduce muscle tension, positively change your mood, and enhance your feeling of self-control. What’s more important than the type of exercise is that you choose the exercises you enjoy.3 Other than that, it’s all good!


  1. Craft LL. (2005). Exercise and clinical depression: examining two psychological mechanisms. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 6(2), 151-171.
  2. Raglin JS, Morgan WP. (1987). Influence of exercise and quiet rest on state anxiety and blood pressure. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 19, 456-463
  3. Daley AJ, Maynard IA. (2003). Preferred exercise mode and affective responses in physically active adults. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 4(4), 347-356.

Dr. Haley Perlus

Dr. Haley Perlus is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Vega’s Expert Panel. With a Ph.D. in Sport and Exercise Psychology, M.S. in Sport Pedagogy, and numerous fitness and coaching certifications, Dr. Perlus is an expert at empowering athletes of all types and health enthusiasts achieve peak results. An adjunct professor at the University of Colorado, international speaker, former Alpine ski racer, appointed Industry Leader for IHRSA.org, and author including soon-to-be-released The One Minute Dietand Guidebook to Gold, Dr. Perlus helps people reach their highest standard of performance. For a free chapter of one of her books visit www.DrHaleyPerlus.com
Dr. Haley Perlus