Exercise Can Reduce Stress, But There's a Catch Study Says

Teens running

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Key Takeaways

  • Researchers found that regular exercise can improve stress levels, but only if you have a high degree of intrinsic motivation.
  • This type of motivation relies on doing an activity for pleasure or satisfaction, rather than for the results of the activity.
  • Although the research was done on young people, experts note that these results may be similar for all ages and that enjoying exercise is key to effectiveness.

Physical activity is often touted as a stress reliever, but it may not have similar effects for everyone, because it depends on why you are exercising. A new study in the Psychology of Sport and Exercise suggests that intrinsic motivation plays a key role in increasing life satisfaction levels.

This type of motivation is related to doing an activity for the enjoyment of the exercise itself, as opposed to extrinsic motivation, which is tied to the result of the activity. It is possible—and might be preferable—to have both types, but for stress-lowering effects, intrinsic motivation seems to be more important.

For example, you may be exercising to build muscle or for health benefits, which are both external motivators. To do that, you choose an activity you love doing, like dancing, weight lifting, martial arts, or HIIT sessions, which provide intrinsic satisfaction.

Study Findings

In the recent study, researchers looked at 864 young people in Switzerland between the ages of 16 and 25 and assessed their stress levels and physical activity. Ten months later, those who enjoyed being active had lower stress levels compared to their peers. Physical activity alone did not provide a link between stress and life satisfaction.

The most likely reason is that intrinsic motivation not only prompts consistency but also provides mental health benefits, particularly for young people, according to lead researcher Silvia Meyer, PhD(c), in the Department of Psychology at the University of Basel in Switzerland.

"Provided that exercise is intrinsically motivated, exercise can help people manage stress better," Dr. Meyer says. "For young people, that's important because adolescence is a challenging period of life, and susceptibility to stress is more pronounced."

Silvia Meyer, PhD(c)

Intrinsic motivation is a key ingredient that drives positive feelings.

— Silvia Meyer, PhD(c)

While extrinsic motivation has its place—using competition as a motivator, for instance—it also comes with potential disappointment if those goals are not reached. Plus, it can be problematic if extrinsic motivation is tied to a negative perspective, such as feeling a sense of failure if the activity is skipped for that day.

"Physical activity on its own may not be sufficient to buffer the kinds of decreases in life satisfaction that are caused by increased stress," says Dr. Meyer. "Intrinsic motivation is a key ingredient that drives positive feelings."

At Any Age

Although the recent study was done only on young people, the results could likely apply to anyone who's looking for a stress-busting exercise routine, according to previous research.

For example, a study of adults in Neuroscience Research involved tracking neural activity during tasks that were both intrinsically and extrinsically motivated. Researchers found that each type affects the brain in different ways and that intrinsic-related tasks deepened the part of the brain related to satisfaction and enjoyment.

A study in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity found that this type of motivation also makes you more likely to engage in exercise on a regular basis, which researchers noted can lower risks of:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Cancer
  • Hypertension
  • Obesity
  • Osteoporosis
  • Depression

Making It Work

If you haven't yet found your wellspring of intrinsic motivation when it comes to exercise, one strategy is to keep trying new activities, suggests Mike Matthews, CPT, author of The Little Black Book of Workout Motivation.

"The starting point when trying to find an activity you love is to think of this as building a lifestyle, and that might involve doing several types of exercise," he says. "That means noticing when you're truly enjoying an activity for its own sake, and then adding more of that into your exercise mix."

He suggests trying an activity for at least a month or two, to see if it "sticks" and you begin looking forward to those sessions.

Mike Matthews, CPT

There are so many ways of getting and staying fit, there's no reason to keep doing something that doesn't make you feel fired up.

— Mike Matthews, CPT

On a related note, if you used to love an activity but it's been leaving you cold lately, it might be time to part ways, Matthews says. People change their preferences as they age, and sometimes, that means being realistic about how you feel when faced with your usual workout.

"There are so many ways of getting and staying fit, there's no reason to keep doing something that doesn't make you feel fired up," he says.

What This Means For You

To alleviate stress, finding an activity you truly enjoy may play a key role, especially because it can boost consistency. Look for ideas that you will be able to continue long-term. You also should talk to a healthcare provider first before beginning a new exercise regimen.

4 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Silvia Meyer et al, No fun, no gain: The stress-buffering effect of physical activity on life satisfaction depends on adolescents' intrinsic motivationPsychology of Sport and Exercise (2021). doi:10.1016/j.psychsport.2021.102004

  2. Teixeira PJ, Carraça EV, Markland D, Silva MN, Ryan RM. Exercise, physical activity, and self-determination theory: a systematic review. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2012 Jun 22;9:78. doi: 10.1186/1479-5868-9-78

  3. Woogul Lee, Johnmarshall Reeve, Yiqun Xue, Jinhu Xiong. Neural differences between intrinsic reasons for doing versus extrinsic reasons for doing: An fMRI study. Neuroscience Research, Volume 73, Issue 1, 2012, Pages 68-72, ISSN 0168-0102. doi:10.1016/j.neures.2012.02.010

  4. Duncan, L.R., Hall, C.R., Wilson, P.M. et al. Exercise motivation: a cross-sectional analysis examining its relationships with frequency, intensity, and duration of exercise. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 7, 7 (2010). doi:10.1186/1479-5868-7-7

By Elizabeth Millard
Elizabeth Millard is a freelance journalist specializing in health, wellness, fitness, and nutrition.