If You’re Expecting Stress, Here’s When You Should Go for a Run

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You’re dreading today’s meeting. It will be a tough negotiation with a lot resting on how it goes. Losing your cool will be disastrous. You think you’re prepared but you want to do more. You have a half-hour break 2 hours before it is scheduled. Is there something you can do that might help you stay calmer during the meeting? Exercising aerobically for 30 minutes, 90 minutes before the meeting, may reduce your stress reactivity, according to a 2015 randomized, controlled study from Berlin, published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

How stress is created in a lab

At your meeting, much of your stress will arise from your fear of being unable to assert your position in a social hierarchy of negotiators and from how others will judge you if you fail to make the deal. This kind of stress, a form of ‘psychosocial stress’, can be mimicked in a laboratory with a protocol known as the Montreal Imaging Stress Task or MIST. During a MIST session, you must solve a series of challenging mental arithmetic tests within an unreasonably short time. A box on a screen shows you your scores and compares them with fictitious ‘better’ scores of other people. You’re told other people are watching you perform. To make you even more stressed, the experimenter gives you negative feedback and might act unfriendly. Here, like in your meeting, you are stressed by ‘socio-evaluative threat’ – the fear of being compared to others in a negative light and of being judged.

What the study found

In the study, one group of healthy, 20-30 year old males walked or ran on a treadmill at 60-70% of their individual VO2 max for 30 minutes while a comparable placebo group did some light stretching. Around 90 minutes after they stopped, they went through a session of MIST while lying in an MRI scanner. The body releases the hormone cortisol during a stress response and the participants’ cortisol levels were measured to estimate their hormonal stress response.

  • The men who had exercised 90 minutes before had a smaller rise in cortisol during the MIST than those who hadn’t.
  • Fitter men released more cortisol while they exercised and less cortisol during the MIST.
  • The more emotionally positive the men felt after exercising, the smaller their rise in cortisol during the MIST.


How the authors explained the findings

Aerobic exercise left the study’s participants with sustained activity in the hippocampus, a limbic region of the brain. The negative feedback loop of a stress response involves the hippocampus, and the authors of the study conjecture that it is because this negative feedback loop continues to stay active after the exercise session has ended, that a subsequent stress response is buffered. If this is true, then this effect might not last if you wait too long after exercising. Exercising more than 2 hours before a stressor may not be quite as effective.

Are the findings backed by other studies?

Some studies looking at the effect of exercise on a stress response have shown mixed results, but this study’s results echo the findings of one meta-analysis on 15 randomized, controlled trials, published in Biological Psychology in 2006, which found that prior moderate to intense aerobic exercise can calm the rise in blood pressure brought about by stress. The bigger the dose of exercise, the larger the effect, starting at 30 minutes of exercise at a minimum of 50% of VO2 max.


Taking action

This small study has its limitations – only men participated and they were all aged between 20 and 30. Still, there’s no reason to suppose its findings don’t apply beyond these demographics. At the very least, aerobic exercise brings a wealth of benefits on its own.

  • Go for a 30-minute run or brisk walk that finishes 90 minutes before you expect a stressful experience
  • Exercise at a moderate intensity
  • Enjoy it! You’ll feel more emotionally positive afterwards, if you do.
  • Work on getting fitter
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