If getting more exercise is one of your New Year’s resolutions, here is another reason to stick with it: daily exercise—which is known to lower blood pressure—has also been shown to reduce stress and anxiety. I am not the first to notice that physical activity improves my ability to respond to stressful situations, but as a physiologist, I naturally wonder about the biological basis of this observation.
The hippocampus—one of the brain regions that regulates anxiety levels—becomes activated during both exercise and stress. Research suggests that exercise can calm some of the nerve cells in the hippocampus that become overstimulated during times of stress. While we don’t fully understand the mechanisms, we do know that certain chemical signals in the brain inhibit nerve cell activity, and some of these signals are likely responsible for the observed reduction in stress and anxiety.
Reduced anxiety and stress immediately after physical activity is not the only benefit of exercise. Blood pressure also declines to healthier levels within minutes after exercising. Studies suggest that exercise causes vasodilation, or widening of the blood vessels. When blood vessels open wider, it allows the blood to flow more easily, thereby lowering the pressure of the blood inside the vessels. Activation of histamine receptors is one mechanism that contributes to the reduction in blood pressure following exercise.
While there are many other benefits to regular exercise, the reductions in stress and blood pressure occur immediately and last for many hours. So, consider engaging in a physically active lifestyle that includes daily exercise, and encourage family and friends to join in. The result could be less stress, less anxiety, and lower blood pressure. What better way to start 2018?
William B. Farquhar, PhD, is a professor in the department of kinesiology and applied physiology at the University of Delaware. In addition to being a member of the American Physiological Society, he is a Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine.