Stress is part of being human but sometimes this can be a bit too much. In that case, exercise can help you as many statistics, facts, and studies show.
Moving at higher intensities is often mentioned as one of the things that can help you deal with stress. Below you can find where this claim comes from and other findings, statistics, facts, and studies about exercise and stress.
Keep in mind that the figures below are often estimations from smaller studies and surveys. These things generally come with a lot of biases, suboptimal sample selection, and measurement errors.
In reality, some numbers will likely vary for the overall population, sometimes by a lot.
1. Effectiveness of exercise to reduce stress
It is clear that many people say exercise is something that can help you reduce stress. However, you may wonder if this is really the case and if so, to what extent exercise helps and how this works.
For example, one study with data from 32,229 adults estimates that individuals who expended more than 3.0 Kcal/kg/day in physical activity during leisure time were 78% and 62% less likely to have moderate and high perceived stress, respectively (2).
At the same time, there are also a few studies that don’t find exercise reduces stress (8).
In short, overall exercise does seem to reduce stress. There are a few study exceptions that don’t find the same relation.
However, if in the worst-case scenario exercise does not help (that much) with stress, you still get a wide variety of other valuable benefits from exercise. In turn, this can cause less worrying about health conditions in the long term.
2. Exercise and stress poll results
The American Psychological Association conducts a Stress In America poll each year. In 2013 they focused on stress and exercise which resulted in a nice amount of statistics.
They asked 1,950 adults ages 18+ and 1,018 teens from the United States a wide variety of questions about the subject. This resulted in some of the following statistics (9):
- 30% of adults that says they feel less stressed after exercise
- 32% of teens that says they feel less stressed after exercise
- 36% of Millenials that says they feel less stressed after exercise
- 31% of Gen Cers that says they feel less stressed after exercise
- 28% of Boomers that says they feel less stressed after exercise
- 16% of Matures that says they feel less stressed after exercise
- 33% of high-stress people that feel less stressed after exercise
- 18% of low-stress people that feel less stressed after exercise
- 62% of adults that exercise to reduce stress say it is effective
- 68% of teens that exercise to reduce stress say it is effective
This survey considered teens as 13-17-year-olds, Millennials as 18-34-year-olds, Gen Xers as 35-48-year-olds, Boomers as 49-67-year-olds, and Matures as 68 years and older.
The survey also found that the participants who tended to exercise more tended to have lower stress levels than the participants who did not exercise.
This adds to the big list of correlation statistics between more exercise and less stress.
3. Best exercise for stress
What exactly the best sport or exercise is for reducing stress is not the most precisely studied subject. Even so, there are a few facts about exercise that can help you get somewhat of an idea.
Whether lifting weights or aerobic exercises like running, using an elliptical machine, or walking is the best for reducing stress is not entirely clear.
Both can get your heart beating and have you breathing faster. In stress studies, some form of aerobic exercise is typically used.
One small study suggests that endorphin release is higher in exercise at higher intensities compared to low intensities (10). Endorphins tend to reduce pain, give a feeling of euphoria, and improve your mood.
In turn, these things can lead to a reduction in stress.
When you combine these things some of the best exercises for stress reduction are some form of outside aerobic exercise at high intensities. Examples include running, hiking, cycling, swimming, football, etc.
Something else to note is that stress is not a once-in-a-lifetime event for most people. If you want to consistently control stress choose exercise that is convenient and enjoyable enough to do regularly.
3. Group vs individual sports against stress
What type of exercise you do in what environment is not the only thing that influences how much impact it has on stress levels.
One study divided 69 participants into three main groups for 12 weeks.
One did a group fitness class, one did exercise alone or with a maximum of 2 friends, and the last group was the control who did not engage in regular exercise.
They measured that the group fitness classes lead to a statistically significant decrease in perceived stress and an increase in physical, mental, and emotional quality of life compared with exercising regularly on one’s own or not engaging in regular exercise (13).
In short, among other benefits, exercising in bigger groups may lead to a bigger decrease in stress compared to exercising alone or with only 1 or 2 friends.
4. Popularity of reducing stress with exercise
By now it is clear that exercise can help reduce stress to some extent, and if not, at least offer many valuable benefits. The next question is how many people actually use this method.
The Stress In America survey from 2013 again offers some interesting statistics (9):
- 43% of the adults say they exercise to manage stress
- 37% of the teens say they exercise to manage stress
- 50% of the Millennials say they exercise to manage stress
- 44% of the Gen Xers say they exercise to manage stress
- 40% of the Boomers say they exercise to manage stress
- 36% of the Matures say they exercise to manage stress
They also compared the popularity of working out to manage stress to other methods and how effective they rated certain methods. To manage stress adults said they do the following things:
- 43% exercise (62% of these people find it effective)
- 42% go online (29% of these people find it effective)
- 40% watch tv or movies (33% of these people find it effective)
- 21% play video games
- 7% use social media
To manage stress teens said they do the following things:
- 37% exercise (68% of these people find it effective)
- 67% listen to music
- 46% play video games (59% of these people find it effective)
- 43% go online (41% of these people find it effective)
- 43% spend time with friends or family
- 36% watch tv or movies (39% of these people find it effective)
These responses are subjective but participants seem to find exercise a relatively effective method to reduce stress. On top of that, the individuals also report using this method a good amount.
A more recent version of the Stress In America poll in 2016 also investigated this subject but only gave the numbers per gender (14).
They observed that 46% of men used exercise to reduce stress, 31% went online, 33% watched tv, 30% spent time with friends or family, 31% read, 23% prayed, and 18% ate.
In women they observed that 48% used exercise to reduce stress, 32% went online, 39% watched tv, 44% spent time with friends or family, 44% read, 40% prayed, and 26% ate.
5. How many people are stressed
To get a better idea of how many people can be helped in this area by exercising more, it can be helpful to know how many people deal with a lot of stress in general.
This 2013 Stress In America poll also asked the participants to put a number from 1 to 10 on their stress levels.
Of the adults, 19.8% rated themselves as high-stress (8, 9, or 10). Additionally, 32.5% rated themselves as low-stress (1, 2, or 3) (9).
In the category of teens, 14.6% reported having high stress in the last month, 33.2% reported low stress in the last month.
Besides this 2013 edition of the Stress In America poll, there are not too many good statistics.
There are some numbers for how many people experienced a stressful event in the last year but this is not the best indicator of daily stress levels.
6. How often people exercise
The number of high-stress individuals in the survey is not that big but most people could still use more exercise. Even if it is for the other health benefits.
There are many studies with estimations of how much exercise certain population groups, for example, college students, do but by looking at the Stress in America poll you get a better idea of the relative picture.
In this poll they found some of the following statistics (9):
- 59.2% of the adults said they exercise once a week or more
- 80% of the teens said they exercise once a week or more
- 72% of the Millennials said they exercise once a week or more
- 59% of the Gen Xers said they exercise once a week or more
- 59% of the Boomers said they exercise once a week or more
- 56% of the Matures said they exercise once a week or more
Next, they also asked the participants if they tried to increase their workout time. They measured some of the following results:
- 69% of the adults have tried to exercise more in the past 5 years. 50% of these people are still trying.
- 83% of the Millennials said they tried to exercise more in the past 5 years
- 66% of the Gen Xers said they tried to exercise more in the past 5 years
- 63% of the Boomers said they tried to exercise more in the past 5 years
- 60% of the Matures said they tried to exercise more in the past 5 years
That means a lot of people are still leaving the stress reduction and other benefits of working out on the table.
7. Do stressed people exercise less?
Most people look at the relationship between exercise and stress in the direction of exercise can help reduce stress. However, there is possibly a relationship in the other direction. Stress may influence people to work out less.
One review study gathered the data from 168 studies about the impact of stress on the levels of physical activity. They mention that most of the studies indicate that stress does tend to lead to a decrease in physical activity (15).
However, there were also studies where the opposite was true, where more stress led to more exercise. The authors mention that there are plenty of people who exercise more when stressed.
They have the impression habitually active individuals exercise more in the face of stress, and workout beginners exercise less. In any case, you still have a lot of control over your habits.
The Stress In America poll also asked their participants about this subject. They measured some of the following statistics (9):
- 39% of the adults say they skipped exercise due to stress in past month
- 28% of the teens say they skipped exercise due to stress in past month
- 52% of the Millenials say they skipped exercise due to stress in past month
- 41% of the Gen Xers say they skipped exercise due to stress in past month
- 33% of the Boomers say they skipped exercise due to stress in past month
- 18% of the Matures say they skipped exercise due to stress in past month
Additionally, they also specifically looked at the responses to this question from the participants who said they worked out to reduce stress:
- Of the adults who say they exercise to reduce stress, 43% said they skipped exercise in the past month when they were stressed
- Of the teens who say they exercise to reduce stress, 37% said they skipped exercise in the past month when they were stressed
These numbers are relatively high for a habit that actually has the power to reduce stress.
8. Other mental health benefits of exercise
Reducing excess stress is not the only way exercise benefits your mental health. It can help you in a variety of other areas too.
One meta-analysis from 2020 looked at the data from 59 other studies. They concluded that exercise can have an effect on mental disorders and quality of life (16).
More specifically they suggest exercise can reduce stress, reduce anxiety, and reduce depression.
Something interesting to note is that exercising outdoors could offer even more positive effects in this area.
9. Self-image improvement from exercise
Another benefit of exercise is that it tends to help you improve your self-image. You know you did something challenging that is good for you in the short and long term.
The Stress In America poll also observed this in their participants. They found the following numbers (9):
- 53% of the adults felt good about themselves after exercising
- 53% of the teens felt good about themselves after exercising
This is not as closely related to stress as some of the other statistics.
However, you can make the argument that knowing you can make yourself do the necessary things can make you less stressed about the challenges heading your way.