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Physical Activity and Stress in the Workplace

About Stress

Stress is our body's response to pressures from a situation or life event (called a 'stressor'). What counts as a 'stressor' can vary hugely from person to person. Stressors can include experiencing something new or unexpected, something that threatens your competence/ego, and a feeling of little control over a situation.

A Mental Health Foundation survey found that over the past year, almost three quarters (74%) of people have at some point felt so stressed that they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope.

Stress can affect us both physically and mentally and the impact of long-term stress can have big consequences if left un-managed. Sleep and memory can be affected, eating habits may change, and/or people feel less inclined to exercise. Some people may smoke, consume more alcohol or take drugs to relieve stress. A Mental Health Foundation survey found that over half of adults (51%) who felt stressed reported feeling depressed, and 61% reported feeling anxious. Stress may also play a role in making existing mental health problems worse.

One area of stress that is frequently researched is self-reported work-related stress. We spend a huge amount of time at work. We know that good work can be very beneficial to mental health, but it isn't surprising that work has been identified as a major stressor for many people.

One recent poll found that more than a third of people (38%) reported being stressed about work, with 59% reporting taking work calls and 55% checking emails outside of working hours. Excessive work demands has been identified as once of the biggest sources of stress at work, much of this was attributed to working long hours (e.g. 12 hours a day all week), staff cuts and having to take on more work to compensate for this, difficulties with their line manager and conflicting work and home demands

Stress and Physical Activity

Stress causes the body to produce more of the so-called 'fight or flight' chemicals which prepare it for an emergency. At work, people are often unable to use up the chemicals their own bodies have produced to protect them.

For example, people suffering from stress may start to experience headaches, nausea and indigestion. They may breathe more quickly, perspire more, have palpitations or suffer from various aches and pains. Longer term stress can lead to feelings of strain, worry, insomnia and exhaustion, and increased risk for health problems such as heart attacks and strokes.

Physical activity may offer an alternative approach to reducing or managing stress. Studies have found that highly active individuals tend to have lower stress rates compared to low active individuals.

Physical activity may reduce the harmful effects of stress by improving mood due to distraction from worries or biochemical changes, or increasing positive health behaviours during periods of stress (i.e. decreased smoking and healthier eating habits).

It has also been suggested that the higher levels of fitness can result in a more efficient stress regulation or better recovery from stress. These effects are referred to as stress-buffering.

After considering the evidence from the 31 different studies into physical activity and stress, researchers were confident to advertise physical activity as a stress-management strategy. Further research is required to understand what how much and the intensity of physical activity that is optimal for triggering stress-buffering effects and whether the effect is moderated by the exercise environment.

  • Stress - Are we coping report Stress - Are we coping report (PDF, 2.4 Mb)

    A research report from the Mental Health Foundation about stress, how it affects us and what makes us stressed

  • Let's get Physical Lets Get Physical (PDF, 834 Kb)

    Report from the Mental Health Foundation looking at the impact of physical activity on wellbeing