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Does physical activity reduce stress?

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Yes, but it depends.

There was no one point at which a rumor about positive benefits of exercise on mental health began to circulate. It was a question which developed naturally with the emergence of new psychological experimentations and practices.

Origin and Prevalence.

In order to appropriately explore this theory, you must look at articles that have claimed either side of the argument. The first is from The New York Times, and the second is from The Telegraph. The most authoritative origin for the New York Times' article is a research study published in 1966 and for The Telegraph, it is a study done in 1988. These can be traced back using the citations for other research studies that led to the ultimate conclusions of both articles. Another article to involve in this method is from Harvard Health Publishing. It supports the claim that physical activity reduces stress. It argues that regular aerobic exercise has numerous benefits to both mental health and overall physical health. The article states the mental benefits of exercise reduce stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol while stimulating endorphin production and elevating the mood.

Issues and Analysis.

The terminology within research studies is crucial to understanding the source of this question. A study in the American Journal of Psychology said that "physical activity can confer protection against the emergence of depression" (AJP, 2018). The Journal of Happiness Studies continues this train of thought, concluding with their study that "evidence showed a consistent positive relationship between physical activity and happiness" (JOH, 2018). A study done by the American Public Health Association concluded that "the risk of depression was similar for non-exercisers and exercisers. This study found no evidence that exercise reduces risk for depression or psychiatric distress" (AJPH, 2011). In 1981, another research project within the American Psychological Association claimed: "...physical fitness training leads to improved mood, self-concept, and work behavior" (APA 1981).

The earliest study found conducted by Gutin and published in the Research Quarterly. It confirmed that "a significant relationship existed between the degree of fitness improvement and the degree of mental task improvement" (RQ 1966).

One can see with this timeline progression that the claim of physical exercise reducing depression has evolved from the more simplistic basis of mood improvement. T he other article can be traced back to a 1988 study by the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. It is the first one that truly goes in-depth with the connection between physical exercise and mental illness, which is a valuable hypothesis that appears to have come into play after years of evaluating the effects of exercise and the existence of mental disorders in a disconnected way.

The issue comes around when one narrows the scope of the question asked. "Stress" is an ill- defined term, especially in the field of psychology. The term could involve multiple things, such as depressive states (as seen above), unhappiness, cortisol levels, other mental health issues, and more. "Physical activity" is also crudely defined. The differences between these definitions makes it more difficult when trying to find the origin of a claim. The differences in the operational definition can even lead to different statistical results in multiple opposing psychological experiments. Thus, the origin is different, depending on how one defines the variables.

The Bottom Line

There is a lot of evidence on the internet that supports the claim that exercise reduces stress. The question is what defines physical exercise and stress, as both are different for everyone. There is no reason to believe that anyone would make up this claim or that there are ulterior motives in making the claim that physical activity reduces stress. Physical activity is important for both a healthy mind and body and for most people it will not have a negative impact on stress to participate in physical activity.


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The Digital Polarization Initiative is a student-run project which allows university students to investigate questions of truth and authority on the web and publish their results. Learn more, or see our index. Photo credits here. DigiPo members can edit this page.