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Run It Out: The Science of Exercise And Stress/Depression/Anxiety

I frequently tout the benefits of strength training on this blog.  And for good reason.

Strength training:

•raises your metabolic rate

•helps slow down the aging effects on the body

•burns fat

•builds lean muscle

•keeps your brain sharp

•makes you a badass (ok, that’s subjective)

Recently, a lot of authorities in fitness have come out against long slow cardio training: they say it’s a waste of time and raises cortisol levels.  In other words, they are pro-anaerobic cardio (sprints or strength training circuits) and anti-aerobic (longer, more moderate activities such as running, elliptical machines, and biking).

There is a lot to be said for their case.  Long slow cardio can have a cortisol-boosting effect on the body.

Cortisol is not a friend of ours in today’s society.  The stress hormone tells your body to store fat because it thinks you’re under attack or dying: it shifts your metabolism to your brain, more or less, so that you’ll be sure to have enough fuel to make quick decisions in the face of danger… and I guess in Paleolithic times, this makes sense.  But we’re past that now, and we aren’t going to evolve past that reaction in our lifetime.

What we’re left with is a flabby midsection and chronic stress, which can lead to anxiety and depression.

If you’re killing it with the long runs, and not allowing your body enough time to recover, you force your body into a state of chronic stress.

No bueno, folks.

But not all steady-state cardio has this effect, and not everybody reacts in the same way to it.

Where I come from is a bit different than the hardcore, super-lean trainers.

I use exercise to train my body, as well as to medicate it.

Let me explain…

I run.  I’m a runner.

Though many people would scoff at this because I don’t run more than 4 miles at a time anymore (unless I’m doing a 10k with my clients, which I do bi-annually), I do consider myself a runner.  Why?  Because I consider running my zen place.

When I run, I turn on my music and I concentrate on the thoughts I’m having, focused completely on them without any distractions (damn you, Pinterest!).

It’s safe to say that 80% of my epiphanies come to me while I’m running.

My first video post?  I decided on that while I was running.

My empowerment retreat that I want to host?  About 2 miles into an easy 3-miler, it came to me.

Running is the surefire way to find my inner peace without turning to medication.

For me, this is worth a lot.  Even if it isn’t the most efficient use of my workout time in a get-lean sense.

It’s my head-clearing time.  It’s my get-focused time.  It’s my chill-out time.

My history with anxiety and depression is not just a history.  I still struggle with it sometimes.  It is a chemical imbalance and sometimes it’s just worse than others.

But I know exactly what to do when I start feeling this way.  That empowering voice in the back of my head screams out:

GO RUN!

And I do.  And I pull out of it.  Even if it’s temporary.  I know that if I do it tomorrow too, I’ll pull out of it again.

And to prove that it’s not just me and that this can help you as well if you deal with anxiety, depression or even plain old STRESS, let’s go over a bit of the science behind it.

One of my favorite, most enlightening books is Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, by John J. Ratey.

In it, Ratey goes over the many scientific benefits of aerobic exercise for those that deal with depression, anxiety, stress, and a host of other conditions.

Here are a few bonuses that come from aerobic exercise:

•it elevates brain-derived neurotrophic factor, slowing cognitive decline and strengthening your capacity for and rate of learning, and protects neurons against the corrosive effects of cortisol (exercise boosts BDNF at least as much as antidepressants if not more)

•it promotes brain growth

•it prevents stress by beating it to the punch: self-inflicted physical stress helps ready the body to cope with emotional or physical stress when it comes around unexpectedly

•it balances neurotransmitters in the brain that promote focus

•it interrupts the mental feedback loop of anxiety within the brain

•it reduces muscle tension, which in turn, reduces anxiety

•it regulates all the neurotransmitters targeted by antidepressants, thus waking up the brain and improving self-esteem

…and that isn’t even all of them.

For all these reasons, I’ll admit it: you may catch me on the elliptical from time to time.

All my fitness friends are calling blasphemy right now, but it’s true.  Sometimes I just get a magazine, prop myself on an elliptical and just go at a moderate pace while I read for 45 minutes.  So sue me.

…ok ok, I don’t usually do those elliptical jaunts all by their lonesome.  They’re usually strategically done after hard strength sessions as a sort of elongated cool down.  But their head-clearing effects are life-savers during stressful weeks.

Do you deal with anxiety, depression or stress?  Maybe all you need is a run to start pulling out of it.

One interesting tidbit of information that I also read in Spark is that, when performed by stress-cases, high-intensity anaerobic workouts actually had a detrimental effect on the body and brain.  When you’re stressed beyond belief, the body will interpret that extra strain as additional pressure, causing a cortisol release.  Excess cortisol negatively effects memory, focus, fat metabolism (especially in the midsection) and can actually erode neurons!

So much of my training now is geared toward getting my clients to a state of minimal cortisol.  Depending on their situation, aerobic exercise may be better for just calming the nerves and gaining that space for inner peace, or if they handle stress pretty well, I’ll start them on sprints right away, knowing that they’ll recover easily.

Remember when I said stop working against your personality?  Well I’m going to repeat it here, too.

You need to do some research as to what works for you and what your body needs right now.  It will change, and you have to learn how to change with it.

Here are some of my recommendations…

If you’re:

Super Stressed Out

I’m glad you’re reading this post.  I emphasize the results that anaerobic work gets you physically on this blog a lot.  But chilling your brain out is just as important if you want to maintain those results.

Concentrate on sticking to your strength training 2-3 times per week, and add at least one day of either yoga or longer runs, walks, bike rides, or elliptical sessions.

Take the time to zone out and concentrate on you.

Thing is: you’re pushing so hard in your daily life that you’re stressing yourself out, right?  You need a chunk of time to slow down, and reprogram your stress response.  By relaxing, you can temper that extra cortisol that comes from high-stress lifestyles, and achieve results more easily than you would just going-going-going all the time.

By actively putting your body through a moderate amount of stress through aerobic activity, you are teaching your body that it can handle more, and therefore you will gain resilience in the face of future stress.

If you are already extremely active, make sure you are taking enough rest days.  You’re body needs that time to recover, otherwise your constant state of cortisol is heightened, causing all that nonsense I talked about above.

Having a ridiculously hard time at work?  Maybe now’s not the time to start training for a marathon even though you’ve never run more than 3 miles at a time.  Start slowly, and work your way up.  Life is not a sprint, it’s a marathon (yes, I am fully aware of the irony in this).  You’ll get there.  Trust it.  Don’t rush it.

Ready to Change, Low-Stress and Have The Time To Commit

YES!  Go kill it!

Aim for a sturdy routine of 2-3 strength sessions per week, working in cardio circuits until you’re short of breath.  Combine this with one day of sprint intervals and one day of longer, slower, more mind-clearing cardio.

Your body won’t know what’s coming, which is ideal for changing the physique!

Just make sure that you are taking enough time to recover.  If your body starts feeling consistently fatigued, sore, and weak, take a couple extra days off or replace one of your strength days with an aerobic, steady state workout.

Feeling Down and Unmotivated

I feel you.  Been there, done that.  Let’s turn this mood around, shall we?

GO OUTSIDE.

There is something magical about working out outside.  Connecting with nature, even in big cities (go to a park!), is a great way to start putting focus outside of yourself.

Depression is an obsession with the past and projection of those events onto your future.  If you can get out of that frame of mind, you will do wonders for your outlook.  This is why getting outside, shifting your focus to everything that is beautiful around you, is so helpful.

Give your brain a break from the downward spiral of the blues.

Commit to going outside for even 20 minutes, 4x/week.  Do some kind of activity that feels moderate to you, and just take in the sights.  Look up at the sky.  Take in the birds.  Feel the sun on your face.

The activity will release feel-good hormones while literally giving you a breath of fresh air.  It helps to have these hormones flowing through you when you’re actively trying to shift your focus to gratitude and positivity: it makes it a lot easier.

When you just want to curl up and sleep through the day, the most important thing you can do is get out and MOVE.

Break the cycle.  It’s the only way you’ll change.

Feeling Anxious or Experiencing Lack of Focus

Ok, this one can go either way.  This may take a bit of guess and check.

Try both short-burst intense workouts (such as sprints, HIIT, or cardio circuits) and long, slow cardio or moderate weight lifting.

Every person responds differently depending on their level of stress and preferred method of physical activity.

Some people focus better after working themselves to fatigue in an intense strength workout: pushing themselves to the limit brings them a state of clarity.

Others focus better after thinking it through on a longer run or walk, like I do.

No way is wrong or right.  They’re just different.

Both of these workouts provide an amount of stress on your body that promote focus and action (instead of procrastination).  Depending on your body’s current ability to handle stress, one of these methods will most likely do wonders for you.

Experiment and let me know below which way works best for you.  Just curious…

Bored With Your Workouts

So if this one isn’t obvious already, here’s what I have to say about this circumstance:

DO THE OPPOSITE OF WHAT YOU’RE DOING NOW.

That means, if you’re doing more steady state workouts (where your heart rate doesn’t really spike up and down), push yourself to your limit next time around.  Dabble in fast-paced full-body circuits, or try a bootcamp class somewhere.

And if you’re doing only HIIT or CrossFit-type workouts, try mixing it up by trying a steady-state aerobic workout such as walking, swimming, biking or jogging.

Bottom line is this: your body responds best to switching it up because it is then forced to adapt to the new stresses put upon it.  Your brain, however, likes some semblance of routine, but that could mean routine with working it out to the max, or calming it down with an easy run.  Every body is different.  Honor yours by trying different things and finding what works for you.

*****

If you’re like me, and you use exercise as a sort of meditation or even medication, it’s not necessary that you focus each session on being the most efficient, lean-mass-building, body-fat-blasting 45 minutes of your day.  Even if you don’t yet, but you find that chronic stress is dominating your day-to-day, give it a shot.  Studies show it’s good for you. ;)

If you’re worried about turning to steady-state cardio because of the cortisol effect and you’re really trying to deflate that spare tire around your waist, the answer lies in rest and recovery.  The reason why some marathoners still have a pooch is because they don’t give their bodies enough rest, raising the levels of cortisol in the body to a constant high.

Vary your workouts.  Take rest days.

And when it all comes down to it, have fun!  That’s what exercise should be about.  Sure, you get awesome results, but if you’re not enjoying it, I bet it will take longer to start seeing them.

Give yourself over to it.  ALLOW it to be fun.

So what works best for you?  When it comes to working out, do you prefer high-intensity strength sessions, long runs, or both?  I’d love to hear what you’re all doing, and if I can help you in any way!

If you liked this post, check out “Meditation” For People That Hate Sitting Still, Anti-Hibernation: It’s On, or How To Reconnect.

And feel free to share!  You can also follow me on Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter!


photo 1 adapted by me from Fotolia, photo 2 (adapted by me) by Ed Yourdon, photo 3 (adapted by me) by mikebaird, photo 4 (adapted by me) by Steve-h

32 Responses to “Run It Out: The Science of Exercise And Stress/Depression/Anxiety”

  1. Vic Magary says:

    I’m one of those trainers notorious for bashing long slow cardio. Hell, I’ve been known for the slogan “Treadmills Are For Gerbils” for I don’t remember how long. . .

    But I’ve also always said that if going for a run or using the eliptical brings you some sort of mental, emotional, or spiritual benefit then have it! Just don’t confuse it with an effective fat loss strategy.

    Your article speaks to these mental/emotional/spiritual benefits far more eloquently than I ever have. Many thanks for sharing the benefits of aerobic training while keeping it clear that it is still not ideal for getting lean.

    You rock!
    ~ Vic

    • Amy says:

      Hey, I don’t blame you! I poo-poo the elliptical as well for lean-out training. When it helps to lower cortisol levels and maintain focus, however, I think it’s a great compliment to anaerobic training.

      Yes, you’re right. To be clear, doing solely aerobic, long slow cardio is NOT the most effective method for leaning out for most people.

      Thank you for the kind words, Vic! YOU rock!

  2. Doug says:

    One observation I’ve made of runners (my dad and lots of family, friends, and patients are marathon runners) is that they have amazing mental fortitude and are super productive, low stress people. Somehow that physical stamina seems to do the same for their mental state.

    I might have to add a few short jogs to my routine, I could use a little help in those areas.

    Great post, thanks Amy!

  3. Raja says:

    Amy, this is great! I love reading your posts!
    We get so robotic these days, and often forget that all the “self-improvement” that we subscribe to is nothing without a good psychological/spiritual/emotional foundation.
    Thanks for a great article.

    -R

    • Amy says:

      Thank you, Raja

      It is so important to remember that we need love; self-love as well as love from friends, partners and family. If we don’t make the choice to take care of ourselves, what point is there in working so hard? You won’t be able to enjoy the fruits of your labor!

      Glad you’re liking the posts!

  4. Srinivas says:

    Amy,

    It took me years to get into the habit of exercise. Actually it took 10 years and one good wave. The funny thing is when I surf, the exercise is just a fringe benefit. But you brought up many great points about stress, anxiety and depression. A few days out of the water and I’ll be experiencing all three. One of things I’ve noticed is that best ideas and insights come when I’m completely unplugged from all the distractions and shiny things on the internet. When I come back from a 3 hour session I can sit in front of the computer and work for 3 hours straight. I get more done in those 3 hours than I ever do on a normal day. For me it took finding something I absolutely loved to get exercise to be a habit.

    • Amy says:

      You mention a really good point, Srini. I know a lot of people that hate running. I say to them, don’t do it. Find what you love to do and do that.

      Surfing has a calming and focusing effect on me as well. It’s a sneaky workout; you’re not focusing on how hard it is to paddle into that wave: you’re just thinking about catching it!

      I’m so glad you found that form of movement to bring you out of your stress. It’s amazing how aware we become of the effect exercise has on stress-relief once we’ve experienced it.

  5. Andy says:

    If you’ve never read Murakami’s “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running,” you must. It’s about how he accidentally became a runner and how it’s served as an anchor in his life and creative catalyst in his novels.

    Very cool stuff.

    • Amy says:

      Hey Andy! Welcome to the site!

      I have actually read that book, but wasn’t a big fan to tell you the truth. I didn’t connect to very much of it except for his recounting of the Athens marathon. I thought that part was really interesting!

      I should try reading it again because it’s been just about a year since my last read.

      My favorite running book is most definitely Born To Run. That one has some really enthralling theories, and I love the message of strength.

      Have you read it?

  6. Marvin says:

    This is a great post Amy! All the more so because Jo and I just ran 5 miles this morning! Everything you said in this article is true. I advocate the longer workouts just as much as the “quickies”, because it actually functions as a soothing, meditative workout.

    Bonus: I come up with more ideas for writing during my aerobic runs compared with during my really intense workouts.

    To answer your question, I do both…but I prefer the slow cardio.

    • Amy says:

      I definitely prefer long slow cardio, too. Though, that makes it all the more important for me to make sure I get those short-burst workouts in! Those workouts that you hate the most are usually the ones you NEED the most, right? ;)

  7. i swim. it has definitely helped me with my depression
    noch Noch

    • Amy says:

      I need to get into swimming. I’m going to take a lesson here pretty soon so that I can get some good form down. Right now I just kind of go… however my arms have to move to get there. It’s not very pretty. ;) I’m so happy you found a way to be active that you enjoy to help bring you out of that depression.

  8. Vhinz says:

    Hi Amy,

    I’m very stressed out that’s why I ended up here in your website. Honestly I do a 30 minutes walk out everyday to find myself at peace before I start the day. On the other hand my girlfriend wants to enroll on an aerobic class and it’s nice to see the advantages you’ve stated above. I’m sure if she read this post of your, she will insist me to enroll her as soon as possible. Hahaha

    Thanks for the knowledge you shared :)

    • Amy says:

      Hey Vhinz!

      Sounds like you found the site just at the right time!

      Both your girlfriend’s aerobics class and your walk are equally important because they are what work for YOU specifically. I find that some people react better to higher intensity activity (such as her aerobics class) and others react better to calming down through low to moderate intensity (such as your walks). It all depends on what you feel ready for that day, and your stress level. Neither is bad or wrong. What’s right is what makes you feel the healthiest/most sane!

      I won’t stop her from insisting that you enroll her, though! If she wants to do it, I say go for it! :)

      Glad you found my blog, Vhinz. Feel free to reach out if you have any questions!

  9. [...] and share in the comments below if you find any insights.In my eyes, happiness is where sanity, health, love, peace and excitement come together. Not an easy balance to achieve, but it’s worth [...]

  10. Erin says:

    What is the best way to start running? I’ve never had the stamina to run – can barely walk/run a mile at this point – but I would love to be able to build up my stamina to run because I’ve seen my family benefit so much from it. Where do I start? I can’t afford your program at this time – getting out of a great amount of debt right now – but would appreciate one or two pointers that might get me headed in the right direction. Thanks for your website. I feel as though I’m you from a few years ago – depressed; overweight; stuck.

    • Amy says:

      Hi Erin!

      I always recommend people start running by walk-running. What that means is this: walk 5 minutes, run a minute. Repeat. Too easy? Walk 3 minutes, run a minute… or two. Start by just letting yourself be ok with walking for periods of time. When you don’t feel like you need the walk breaks anymore, take them out. :) There’s also a great article by my buddy Steve on Nerd Fitness here: http://www.nerdfitness.com/blog/2011/08/22/running-properly/

      Congrats on working to get out of debt! Sounds like you’re taking action to change what you can , and that’s strength.

      I’m really happy you found my site, feeling like you are. I’ve been there, as you know. Just keep working and start noticing all the good things you have in your life! There is so much out there that we just don’t see when our focus is on the depression, or how “bad” we look, or how “stuck” we are. The turning point can be now if you commit to start seeing differently.

      Make this the moment that you decide to start looking for the good. You can do this. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to email me!

      Looking forward to having you a part of the Strong Inside Out community!

  11. James says:

    Amy-

    Just a quick comment on the effects running has on you, specifically how you tend to have your best ideas pop into your head while running. Bruce Lee spoke about running in the same manner that you and some others here have said. His daily run was his stress reliever, and also when he would come up with creative ideas concerning the evolution of his physical training, and of course his acting career! He said that it was literally the single most important daily exercise that he would NEVER skip out on. Just some food for thought. I hope to become a runner very soon, as I was in the past. :)

    James

    • Amy says:

      YOU CAN DO IT! Even if you start with a minute at a time, then walk 5, then another minute. The important thing is that you do your own personal best (don’t compare your level to others’!).

      I love Bruce Lee! He is so inspirational. The way he lived his life, the amount of discipline he had and the message he stood/stands for is a great inspiration to me.

      Thanks for sharing this, James!

  12. Joanna says:

    I still struggle with dark thoughts and anxiety but I’m pushing myself every morning to jog and it feels great! I was so afraid to work out because I thought I was going to hurt myself but nope and also prayer to God helps to!!

  13. Mark says:

    Honestly, this is such a well written article. Thank you for this piece. I have been having an inner battle with myself regarding high intensity weight training and my stressful lifestyle. I kept getting sick after lifting weights. So I changed it up and began a routine that is more focused on mental health and what is best for me instead of just trying to get huge muscles. This validated my thoughts and it is so well written. I can definitely relate to this 100%!

    My problem is proper focus and anxiety, and I sometimes get the blues. Each feeling requires a different exercise to get me out of it. I find a little weight lifting (not too hardcore) in the morning helps me release nervous energy and focus. I am going to try running too. Thank you.

    • Amy says:

      So very happy to help, Mark. I think you have the right perspective on it. Just keep changing up your regimen to whatever is best for you that day. :)

  14. […] of cortisol, the stress hormone, right? It basically counteracts weight loss efforts and does a whole slew of negative things to your brain and […]

  15. […] Run It Out: The Science of Exercise And Stress/Depression/Anxiety […]

  16. Annie says:

    Wonderful post! I would add one sub catagory that I felt was missing. Dance, while a wonderful form of excercise for many, is also a creative and emotional way of excercising. It is great for me because it gives me a creative outlet for venting my feelings, gives me a great workout (Varies hugely on the length and the intensity of course. I dance for 3-4 hours three times a week and my classes contain strength, technique, interval training, choreography, stretching, creative work and pointe work, however depedent on your level and intensity you excercise, you could get a great workout within an hour.) and dance can be mentally challenging, so it focuses your thoughts on the technique and routine, so that I get a break from negative thought patterns. Obviously dance is not something everyone is comftable doing, but I believe that everyone should try once in a will, even if only in the walls of their bedroom :-)

  17. Helen Baker says:

    This is a great article and so true. I used to run regularly last year and then work began to dominate my life, and so stopped running. I am now off sick with depression and work related stress and taking antidepressants. I have started dance lessons and this is helping. This article is a reminder that I must get my running shoes back on. Thank you x

  18. Andrew says:

    Amy,

    I could relate to a lot of this post. Depression/anxiety have dogged me for years and I’ve been on meds for about two years. Started working out because the doc suggested it would amplify the effects the pills have. I’ve lost some weight and my physique has improved but it’s all a work in progress.

    As for the impact of running/pushing (I’m a full-time wheelchair user), my route is a combination of paved and gravel so I can do both sprints and longer, slower pushes in the same workout. Push it hard on the pavement, take my time and enjoy the ride on the gravel. Seems like the right mixture for this pusher!

    Take care,

    • Amy says:

      That’s great, Andrew! Gravel to pavement fartleks (which is a funny word for random intervals). Sounds like a great workout! How is it affecting your mindset if you don’t mind me asking?

  19. v. laxmi says:

    Amy,
    I do yoga for an hour to 11/4 hrs 3 days a week and 2 days 30min elliptical. I really enjoy doing yoga.I do want to start running but some how I am not getting pushed. I do walk with my husband here and there for an hour. Please tell me if I am doing right.
    Thanks

    • Amy says:

      Hey V!

      I’d recommend starting with short running intervals. Walk for 5 minutes, then run for one. Repeat until you’ve done 30 minutes. When that starts feeling easier, increase your running time and decrease your walking time. Hope that helps!

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