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Coping with Stress: When Running Is Not Enough

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It is almost impossible to go through life without feeling stressed at some point. Whether it is due to the challenging responsibilities at work or dealing with traffic during your commute, any little bit of tension buildup will cause some amount of stress. Since this sensation is an inevitable one, the key to staying sane is to find the best method to manage the stress. Coping strategies vary from person to person, as well as from one situation to another. Some people manage their stress by eating, listening to music, sleeping, or talking to a family member or friend. Research has shown that one of the most effective strategies used to alleviate stress is physical activity. Although there are actual proven facts that exercise works, many people continue to avoid it and turn elsewhere.

How Does Running Relieve Stress?

Exercise in general releases endorphins, which are the “feel good” neurotransmitters in the brain. Neurotransmitters are basically chemical messengers that relay a relaxation response to the rest of the body. Moderate to high intensity exercises, such as running, put the body through physical stress. This type of workload on the body causes many of the physiological systems to work with one another to keep proper function. This communication between the different bodily systems is similar to what goes on with emotional stress. Therefore, moderate to high intensity physical activity is a good practice for dealing with any type of stress. Just as we train to prepare for the workload on race day, we can train our bodies and minds to cope with stress and anxiety.

When Exercise Has the Opposite Effect

You are Not a Fan of Exercise

If you are dealing with stress, and have been recommended by a family member, friend or doctor to engage in exercise as a coping mechanism, it is not a bad idea to try it out. Even if you have never exercised a day in your life before, it may actually spark an interest in physical activity, which helps build a healthier body in more ways than just relieving stress. If you have avoided exercise your whole life because you truly do not like it, forcing yourself to partake in it in hopes to relieve stress, may end up causing more stress in your life. Studies have shown that the stress relief brought on by exercise is produced within the first bouts of moving, so if you feel the opposite when beginning an exercise program for this reason, it may be better to find another coping mechanism.

Too Much to Do

If you already have too much on your plate on a daily basis, such as dealing with a demanding job, caretaking duties, relationship or financial problems, your health may end up taking a backseat. Trying to squeeze in exercise in the mix may only end up stressing you out even more since it will take time away from getting other tasks done. Stress relief may feel closer if you are able to adjust your priorities and schedule in order to check off your to-do list. The problem with this mentality is that focusing on checking that list off and believing that is the only way to stress relief will cause more stress since at any given time more responsibilities can be added to the list and the weight will feel never-ending.

Heightened Cortisol

During heavy stress, whether it be emotional or physical, cortisol levels are increased in the body. Cortisol is considered to be the stress hormone, which has detrimental effects to our health. Long-term elevated levels of this hormone lead to poor immune function, impaired cognition and increased abdominal fat. These side effects can eventually cause infections, poor judgment, and cardiovascular problems. Those who are trying to fit in marathon training during already stressful times in their lives are at a higher risk of developing these high cortisol levels. The key to stress relief will require a focus on balancing schedules and creating a time for unwinding.

Non-Running Ways to Cope with Stress

Rate Your Responsibilities

During high stress, finding balance will not come easy. The first step is to take note of all of the responsibilities that are contributing to the stress and list them in order of importance. The next step is to rate how much change really needs to be made with each task. There will always be a couple of responsibilities that will rate significantly higher than the others. These are the stressors to focus on first. If you find that work is what is stressing you out the most and taking the most time away from other responsibilities or desires, it may be beneficial to either cut back on work hours if possible or rearrange your schedule in a way that gives you more flexibility. If a significant problem is fatigue and inability to keep up with exercise or other activities due to poor sleep, then the main focus should be on ways to develop better sleep habits.


Finding time to ourselves as a means of relaxing our minds is often times the only way to feel less stressed in life. Most people have the excuse that they do not have any time to unwind. Fitting in one day a week, or even just thirty minutes every day, may be all it takes to refocus our energy and build up motivation to tackle our responsibilities. Unwinding can consist of several methods all with positive outcomes to our mental and physical health.

  • Connect with family or friends making sure these chosen ones are uplifting and full of positivity.
  • Get outside for either some physical activity that you actually enjoy or even just to relax. Studies show that nature, sunlight, and the fresh air of the outdoors have a calming effect.
  • Focus on nutrition. Busy and stressful times may lead to binge eating, choosing fast food and other unhealthy options, or even worse—skipping meals. Incorporating a wholesome and healthy diet will promote improved sleep, mood, and enhanced energy.

Keep in mind that stress is known to lead to detrimental health problems over time such as high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and hormonal imbalance. Exceedingly stressed individuals are at a higher risk of developing a heart attack, stroke, and hospitalization due to extreme fatigue. When mentally listing your priorities, it is important to keep health at the top. Without good health, we cannot do anything else in life.