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How Exercise Makes Your Job Less Stressful

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Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME

The best way to prevent the bad health consequences of work stress is exercise

Stress can be detrimental to your health, contributing to everything from higher blood pressure to nausea. Now, a new study zeroes in one of the the biggest sources of stress—our jobs—and suggests that exercise may be an effective way to ease the health problems sometimes caused by work stress.

In a new report published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, researchers looked at 200 Swedish workers and assessed their stress levels using the Nordic Questionnaire for Psychological and Social Factors at Work. The people were also evaluated for heart health by blood pressure, weight and cholesterol, and they also had their fitness levels assessed.

Researchers found that the people who were more stressed had higher levels of risk factors for heart disease. But the people who were more fit were less likely to have these risk factors. That mean people with high stress levels had higher levels of unhealthy cholesterol compared to stressed people who were more fit. Exercise may act as a buffer against some of the health risk factors that are known to be caused by too much stress, the authors argue. Since the people in the study were asked about their stress levels in general, and not work stress alone, the study also speaks to exercise’s ability to combat the overall effects of stress.

The researchers didn’t ask the people in the study whether exercise relieved their stress, but other studies suggest it does. “However, the paradox is that after a stressful day, people are more prone to engage in sedentary activities—most likely because these activities need less self-regulatory resources than exercise,” says study author Markus Gerber of University of Basel in Switzerland. “Thus, although exercise might be a good medicine against stress, it will only have an impact if ‘the pill’ is taken.”

More research is needed to determine whether there’s an ideal time to exercise for stress relief, but Gerber says some evidence suggests that the four-hour window after exercise is when fitness provides the most protection against stress.

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