How Exercise Helps Manage Stress

Fitness professionals owe it to themselves and their clients to not only understand how exercise impacts physical health, but also the direct effects on mental health including stress and resilience.

We’ve felt it in ourselves, we hear it from our clients, we read about it in the news, and we share it as an outcome but understanding the “how” could have a huge impact on keeping clients beyond the 50% retention rate in our industry. It would also help us finally connect with and attract the 85% of the population that doesn’t use our services.

Two ways to begin a meaningful understanding of how exercise impacts stress management:

1. Acceptance that stress is a constant. It originates externally in our environment; something happens that generates a stress response. (This differs from anxiety that is more internally sourced in anticipation of a perceived event). Stress is normal and desirable physiological response when it’s actually required; think more along the lines of our life and safety being in peril, less too many emails in our inbox. Our ability to handle or manage those stressors is what we can work towards, moving from a physiological reaction to a mindful response.   

Try this with your clients: Explain how people with high levels of happiness also have a well-honed sense of control; they focus on managing what they can control and letting go of what they can’t control.

2. Utilizing the hermetic stress during physical activity to restore. Exercise is a stressor; hermetic stress or eustress or what we often coin “positive stress”. The process of intentionally bringing ourselves to a stress peak of the sympathetic nervous system during exercise followed by a recovery towards the parasympathetic nervous system during rest teaches our body to handle distress (aka bad or unwanted stress) the same way. It creates a practice effect and helps us learn to bring ourselves back to a desirable steady state i.e. using deep belly/diaphragmatic breath to calm our bodies. 

Try this with your clients: Have them notice how they feel after recovering from a workout peak; grateful, proud of themselves, relieved, and likely realizing how capable they truly are. Let them know they can do the same with stress outside of their workouts; they’ve trained their bodies physiologically for this, they can breathe using their bellies, they can recover quickly, they are resilient and capable.



Two books to take your understanding to the next level:

  1. The STRESS Prescription by Elissa Epel PhD. I had picked it up hoping from new practical tips to share in my corporate wellness workshops and was very pleasantly surprised to learn so much about the physiology of stress. Dr. Epel shares oodles of research-based finding from her own studies as well as those of her colleagues, all leaders in their fields.

A notable section called “Train for Resilience” explains hermetic stress and how it’s stimulated using physical activity as well as cold plunging aka one of the hottest wellness trends.


2. Move the Body, Heal the Mind by Jennifer Heisz PhD. The details and recommendations are clearly explained for moving towards wellness. Exercise’s impact on anxiety, mood disorders including depression, brain health and dementia, focus and creativity, as well as sleep are covered by Dr. Heisz who is the Director of Neurofit Lab at McMaster University.


One media-friendly opportunity to share with your clients:

  1. Mental Health Week is May 1st to 7th. The Canadian Mental Health Association’s theme for this year is #MyStory which provides us all an opportunity to share how we cope with mental health challenges. Ideas and resources can be found here

Use this opportunity to let your clients know how you utilize exercise to better cope with stress and invite them to do the same; movement is part of health care.


As our clients are now more in-tuned to their physical, mental, and social health and seeking the support to achieve their goals we have oodles of opportunities at our fingertips. I’m happy to provide you simple ways you can coach them to strengthen their resilience and cope with mental health challenges. Click here for your free 10 Ways to Strengthen Mental health Through Fitness Workbook.


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