Written by Dorothea Csutkai

Stress and anxiety is an inevitable part of life and chances are you are among the 13.1% of Australians who have experienced it at some point. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2017/18 3.2 million Australians aged between 15 and 64 had anxiety related conditions with a higher rate in females than men. The Australian Psychological Society found that 1 in 3 Australians experience symptoms of stress short or long term. The physical, social, financial and emotional impacts of stress and anxiety are many and as a Pilates instructor, I see what happens to the body from prolonged periods of stress.

There are many ways of coping with stress and anxiety such as meditation, talking to a therapist, eating well, getting enough sleep and exercise. 

So how does exercise help in managing stress and anxiety? First it helps to know what happens to the body during exercise so here’s a brief overview.

Let’s start with the muscles. Muscles require more energy, oxygen and blood during exercise. Glucose from the blood and liver provides energy for about the first 20 minutes of exercise and  after that blood glucose can get too low so hormones are released to prevent breakdown of muscles, instead converting fat to energy. 

During exercise muscles increase in vascularity and size. Blood vessels open to send oxygen to where it’s needed. Simultaneously new cells are produced nearby that bind to existing skeletal muscle to increase muscle size. Muscle strength comes not from an increase in muscle fibres but from an increase in motor units being recruited for better neuromuscular coordination. With  regular exercise the heart becomes stronger and more efficient at pumping blood while more blood vessels are created and this reduces blood pressure in the long term.

The body produces CO2 which needs to be cleared and the rate of breathing increases. At the beginning of a workout session various receptors are stimulated that increase the rate of the breath very quickly. As the session continues the body is able to regulate the breath and become more efficient by increasing the volume of breath rather than frequency. 

And now we get to the mental health benefits. When we exercise the brain becomes more alert and focused. With the heart pumping stronger there is increased blood flow to the brain encouraging cell growth in the areas involved in rational thinking, social, physical and intellectual performance. 

Regular exercise actually grows brain cells, predominantly in the hippocampus which is the area of learning and memory and the prefrontal cortex which involved in decision making, social behaviour, mood and personality.

Dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin are neurotransmitters that are released during exercise. These are responsible for the feeling of elation after exercise but also has many other important functions such as helping regulate insulin and improving sleep.

So with the extra brain cells and hormones these benefits are longer lasting with a regular workout or fitness regime. The recommended amount of exercise is 30 minutes 4 or 5 times a week and a combination of weight training and aerobic activity. 

Pilates is a great exercise option for boosting mental health. Not only because of its strength and aerobic components but also because of the focus on breathing and intention. Thinking about the execution of the movement allows for space in the mind from the stresses and anxieties stuck that are stuck on that monotonous loop. It is a chance to stop and check in with yourself, how is the mind and the body feeling? – and to address the physical manifestations of stress such as shallow breathing, and tight neck and shoulders. 

Seeley’s Anatomy and Physiology, 11th Edition, VanPutte, Regan, Russo, 2017 Pages 631-2, 764, 618-21, 859-60.