Science Says Your Least Favorite Workout May Actually Help You Handle Stress Better

by Caroline Burke

The benefits of cardio exercises like running aren't exactly new information. It's obviously great for your physical health, and it can even help your mental health with all those feel-good endorphins. But what you probably don't know is whether running can help with stress directly, and a new study is shedding some light on exactly that.

As it turns out, running may be a great way to protect yourself from the debilitating mental effects of stress — at least, for mice, it can. The direct effects for humans aren't entirely known yet, but a preliminary study in the area is starting to prove an exciting hypothesis: Regular runs might help to counteract the mental decline caused by chronic stress. If you've been looking for a reason to suck it up and go for a run once a day, this might be it.

This study is exciting largely because of how damaging chronic stress can be on your body. Chronic stress can increase your long-term chances of developing things like heart disease, and it can even disrupt your breathing, which may lead to respiratory problems down the road. Stress can wreak so much havoc on your body, but at the same time, it's technically unavoidable, which is why it's so, well, stressful.

The association between running and chronic stress could be huge, if it proves to be true in humans.

Here's how it worked for the lab mice in the study, which was conducted by a team of researchers at Brigham Young University: Two groups of mice were established, and one group was allowed to run after exposure to environmental stressors, while the other was not. The group of mice who were able to run after being stressed out ended up in the same mental state as mice who weren't exposed to any stress. In other words, running had the effect of wiping their stress slate clean, so that their neurons weren't impaired, and they were able to continue learning and forming memories as they normally would.

Chronic stress can get in the way of just that: your ability to learn, retain information, and form memories. The potential long-term, beneficial impact of running on people (if they respond the same way mice do) could work to preserve your ability to form and retain new memories as you get older.

Another potentially huge silver lining of this study has to do with being able to control your stress levels, as noted by the senior study author Jeff Edwards.

People don't always have control over their stress levels, but what they do have control over is how much they can exercise.

Edwards explained the study's findings in context,

The ideal situation for improving learning and memory would be to experience no stress and to exercise. It’s empowering to know that we can combat the negative impacts of stress on our brains just by getting out and running.

Of course, this study is far from making a concrete statement on the connection between cardio exercise and chronic stress in humans. It's simply a step in the direction toward better understanding how you might be able to combat the long-term negative impacts of stress on your mind and body through regular exercise.

If you're currently feeling so stressed in your daily life that just going through your usual routine seems like an insurmountable task, there are small steps you can take to reduce your stress. Of course, you should always speak to a medical professional if you think your anxiety can't be fixed through these types of lifestyle changes.

Increasing mindfulness and taking time to unplug is an easy way to de-stress, too. You could start incorporating 10 minutes of deep breathing every day, or you can try to take a week where you don't log onto any social media networks, especially if you feel like that might a source of your stress.

Or, you could just go on a run. It works for mice, doesn't it?