Exercise: A healthy stress reliever

When it comes to good health, physical activity matters. Exercise and physical activity improve overall fitness, body mass index, and cardiovascular and muscular health.1 Studies even show exercise can relieve stress, reduce depression and improve cognitive function.2,3,4

Although many respondents to the Stress in America™ survey report that they experience positive benefits from exercise, such as feeling good about themselves, being in a good mood and feeling less stressed, few say they make the time to exercise every day. In fact, the survey found that more than one-third of adults (37 percent) report exercising less than once a week or not at all.

Like adults, teens also report benefits from exercise.

Only 17 percent of adults report exercising daily.

Fifty-three percent of adults say they feel good about themselves after exercising, 35 percent say it puts them in a good mood and 30 percent say they feel less stressed.

Fewer than half (43 percent) of adults say they exercise to manage stress and 39 percent say they have skipped exercise or physical activity in the past month when they were feeling stressed.

Sixty-two percent of adults who say they exercise or walk to help manage stress say the technique is very or extremely effective. Forty-three percent of adults who report exercising specifically to help manage stress say they skipped exercise or physical activity in the past month when they were stressed.

Half of adults (50 percent) say that being physically active or fit is extremely or very important to them, yet only 27 percent report doing an excellent or very good job of achieving this.

Like adults, teens also report benefits from exercise, but face challenges when it comes to being physically active or fit.

Fifty-three percent of teens say they feel good about themselves after exercising, 40 percent say it puts them in a good mood and 32 percent say they feel less stressed after exercising. Regardless, one in five teens (20 percent) report exercising less than once a week or not at all.

Thirty-seven percent of teens say they exercise specifically to manage stress.

Sixty-eight percent of teens who say they exercise or walk to help manage stress say the technique is very or extremely effective.

Twenty-eight percent of teens skipped exercise or physical activity in the past month when they were feeling stressed and 37 percent of teens who report using exercise to manage stress say they skipped exercise or physical activity in the past month when they were stressed.

The majority of teens (62 percent) say that being physically active or fit is extremely or very important to them, yet only 51 percent report doing an excellent or very good job at achieving this.

Despite the value that Millennials appear to place on being physically active or fit, they are not doing well at achieving this goal.Millennials are more likely than other generations to say they exercise weekly and recognize the positive benefits of doing so.5 Despite this, many Millennials still report skipping exercise because of stress.

Seventy-two percent of Millennials say they exercise once a week or more, compared with 59 percent of Gen Xers and Boomers and 56 percent of Matures.

Millennials are also more likely to report feeling less stressed after exercise (36 percent vs. 31 percent of Gen Xers, 28 percent of Boomers and 16 percent of Matures) and to say they exercise or walk to manage stress (50 percent vs. 44 percent of Gen Xers, 40 percent of Boomers and just 36 percent of Matures).

However, Millennials are more likely to say that they have skipped exercise or physical activity in the past month when stressed (52 percent vs. 41 percent of Gen Xers, 33 percent of Boomers and 18 percent of Matures).

Despite the value that Millennials appear to place on being physically active or fit, they are not doing well at achieving this goal: 53 percent say it is very or extremely important to them, yet only 29 percent say they are doing an excellent or very good job at it. Comparatively, 53 percent of Matures, 48 percent of Gen Xers and 46 percent of Boomers say being physically active or fit is very or extremely important to them, yet only 30 percent, 26 percent and 25 percent, respectively, say they are doing an excellent or very good job at it.

Eighty-three percent of Millennials say they have tried to exercise more in the past five years, compared with 66 percent of Gen Xers, 63 percent of Boomers and 60 percent of Matures.

Physical activity seems to help people stress less

Survey findings show that Americans spend much of their time engaged in sedentary activities — often more than three hours a day watching TV or going online. Many report turning to these activities to manage their stress. Yet people who engage in these activities to manage stress are less likely to say that the technique is effective, compared with those who engage in more physically active stress management strategies.

On average, adults report that they spend 3.9 hours a day watching TV, 3.7 hours a day going online and 3.4 hours a day sitting at a desk.

Forty-two percent of adults report going online to help manage stress and 40 percent say they watch TV or movies for more than two hours a day.

Only 29 percent of those who go online to manage stress and 33 percent of those who watch TV or movies to manage stress say these techniques are very or extremely effective. In contrast, among adults who exercise to manage stress (43 percent), 62 percent tout its effectiveness.

People who engage in sedentary activities to manage stress are less likely to say that the technique is effective compared with those who engage in more physically active stress management strategies.Adults who report the highest levels of stress in the past month (eight, nine or 10 on a 10-point scale) are less likely to say they exercise each week and more likely to say they have skipped exercise due to stress in the past month. Adults who report experiencing high stress are also more likely than adults who report experiencing low stress (one, two or three on the 10-point scale) to engage in sedentary activities for stress management.

Adults reporting high stress levels are less likely than those reporting low stress levels to say they exercise at least once weekly (54 percent vs. 64 percent). Furthermore, those who exercise less than once a week or not at all report stress levels in the past month higher than those of adults who exercise once a week or more (5.3 vs. 4.9).

Adults reporting high stress are more than four times as likely as adults reporting low stress to say they have skipped exercise in the past month due to stress (64 percent vs. 15 percent).

Adults reporting high stress are more likely to say they engage in sedentary activities to manage stress. More than half report managing their stress by going online (53 percent vs. 31 percent of those reporting low stress) and watching TV or movies for more than two hours a day (51 percent vs. 27 percent of those reporting low stress).

Adults reporting high stress levels say they spend an average of 4.4 hours a day online, compared with 3.4 hours a day for adults reporting low stress levels.

Despite the fact that they report exercising less frequently than those with low stress, adults with high stress appear to be more aware of the effect that exercise has on their stress level. Among those who exercise, 33 percent of high-stress adults said they feel less stressed after exercising, compared with 18 percent of low-stress adults.

Teens also report spending much of their time engaged in sedentary activities, yet say that exercise offers more stress relief than other techniques they use to manage stress.

Teens report spending an average of 3.4 hours a day sitting at a desk, 2.8 hours a day watching TV and 2.7 hours a day going online.

More teens than adults say their sedentary stress management techniques are effective, but they still report exercise as the most effective stress management approach. Sixty-eight percent of teens who exercise or engage in physical activity to manage stress (37 percent) say it is extremely or very effective. Comparatively, 59 percent of teens who report playing video games to manage stress, 41 percent who report going online to manage stress and 39 percent who report watching TV or movies for more than two hours a day to manage stress say these are very or extremely effective stress management techniques.

Teens who report exercising at least once weekly report an average stress level in the past month of 4.4 on a 10-point scale, compared with 5.1 among teens who report exercising less than once a week or not at all.

Even more important, teens who report exercising at least once weekly report lower average stress levels during the past school year than teens who report exercising less than once a week or not at all (5.6 vs. 6.4 on a 10-point scale).

Teens who report high stress during the past school year also report spending an average of 3.2 hours online a day, compared with two hours among those with low reported stress levels during the past school year.

Despite their fitness goals, Millennials report spending more time engaging in sedentary activities than other generations. They also spend the most time engaged in screen time to help manage stress.

Millennials report spending an average of five hours a day online, compared with 3.7 hours for Gen Xers, 3.1 hours for Boomers and 2.5 hours for Matures.

Sixty-eight percent of Millennials say they engage in screen time (including going online, watching TV or movies for more than two hours a day, playing video games and sounding off on social media) to help manage stress, compared with 64 percent of Gen Xers, 59 percent of Boomers and 54 percent of Matures.

Millennials are more likely than other generations to say they nap or sleep to relieve stress — 41 percent of Millennials report this, compared with 33 percent of Gen Xers, 29 percent of Boomers and 20 percent of Matures.

Women struggle with exercise

Women are more likely than men to report the benefits of exercise.While more women than men report positive results of exercise, they also report exercising less frequently. Compared with men, women are more likely to say they have skipped exercise in the past month when they were stressed.

Seventy percent of men, compared with 56 percent of women, say they exercise once a week or more.

Women are more likely than men to report the benefits of exercise: 57 percent of women say exercise makes them feel good about themselves versus 48 percent of men, 38 percent of women report that exercise gives them more energy versus 27 percent of men, and 34 percent of women say they are less stressed after exercise versus 26 percent of men.

Despite the positive results of exercise that women report, 43 percent say they have skipped exercise in the past month when stressed, compared with 34 percent of men.

Patterns related to physical activity are also apparent among teen girls and boys. Girls are less likely than boys to say they exercise, play sports to manage their stress and place importance on being physically active or fit.

Eighty-seven percent of boys say they exercise at least once weekly, compared with 73 percent of girls.

Twenty-four percent of girls say they play sports to help manage or relieve stress, compared with 32 percent of teen boys reporting the same.

While the majority of teens (62 percent) think being physically fit is important, teen boys are more likely than girls to say that being physically fit is extremely or very important to them (66 percent vs. 57 percent of teen girls).

Footnotes

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2008). Chapter 2: Physical activity has many health benefits. In Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. Retrieved from http://www.health.gov/paguidelines/guidelines/chapter2.aspx

Ibid.

American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Exercise fuels the brain’s stress buffers. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/exercise-stress.aspx

Harvard Health Publications, Harvard Medical School, Harvard Men’s Health Watch. (2011, February). Exercising to relax. Retrieved from http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Mens_Health_Watch/2011/February/exercising-to-relax

The four generations are defined as the following: Millennials (18- to 34-year-olds), Gen Xers (35- to 48-year-olds), Boomers (49- to 67-year-olds) and Matures (68 years and older).