Exercise and Stress Relief

Exercise can help

Getty Images/Marco Maccarini

If you're like the rest of us in this country, stress is a regular part of your day.  Some statistics suggest that up to 77% of us feel the physical effects of stress on a regular basis in the form of headaches, insomnia, anxiety, weight gain, muscle aches and pains, crankiness and difficulty focusing.

Getting rid of stress is impossible, but learning how to deal with it in a healthy way can actually help get rid of some of the worst symptoms of stress, including weight gain.

  The best way to do that is with exercise.

Blow Some Stink off With Exercise

When we're stressed, what's the first thing we do? Have a drink? Pick a fight with your spouse?  Flip off at the driver in front of you, who just happens to be The Worst Driver in the World?  Sometimes, letting out your stress in those ways can give you some temporary relief, but there are consequences, not the least of which is an angry spouse or a teed off driver.

When you get to that point, it's hard to think straight, but the best thing you can do is probably the last thing on your mind: Stop, take a deep breath and think about what you really need in that moment.

We may gravitate towards something that will give us instant gratification (and yelling at bad drivers certainly feels good, doesn't it?), but that isn't going to give us lasting stress relief.  What can is doing something physical, something that gets your mind and body out of that fight or flight stress response and bring those stress hormones under control so your body feels better.

There are different kinds of exercise that can help, depending on how you're feeling and what you can handle.

1. Simple Unstructured Activities

  • Working in the yard
  • Taking a slow bike ride
  • Taking a walk by yourself or with a friend
  • Washing the car
  • Any mindless, rhythmic activity - walking, raking leaves, cleaning out a drawer, etc.

    Often, as your body gets into it's own rhythms, you can let your mind go and work out problems, find solutions or just daydream for awhile.

    2. Blow It Out the Old Bloomer Leg with Structured Exercise

    Good old cardio or strength training workouts are perfect for getting your stress under control. Your heart rate is probably already elevated from stress and a good workout will help use that to get rid of any extra tension and help you feel more relaxed. Some ideas:

    • Interval Training - Going hard and then going easy is a great way to work hard without having to sustain a high level of intensity for an entire workout. Interval Workouts
    • Circuit Training - These workouts move fast, keeping your mind engaged while your troubles fall into the background. Circuit Training Workouts
    • Cardio Exercise - There's nothing better than a good old cardio workout for getting you moving, burning calories and letting you escape life for a little while.
    • Strength Training - Sometimes you want to feel strong in your life and, if you can't feel that in your current circumstances, the next best thing is feeling it in your body. Pick up some weights and show the world just how strong you are. Strength Training Workouts

      Mind/Body Activities

      Getting some strength training and cardio into your day can help perk you up, butt here are other ways to soothe yourself and give your mind time to relax and slow down a bit.

      • Yoga. This is a great way to quiet your mind and relax your body. There are different ways to practice yoga--some vigorous and others relaxing. .
      • Pilates. While more vigorous than some types of Yoga, Pilates forces you to concentrate on what your body is doing while helping you work on core strength, stability and flexibility. This Yoga/Pilates Workout combines moves from both disciplines.
      • Being mindful during exercise - Just paying attention to what you're doing can keep you in the present moment, the best way to reduce stress.
      • Meditation. Finding the time and patience to relax can be tough. But meditation doesn't have to be complicated--simply stopping to breathe for a few minutes can be your own meditation. Or try Guided Meditation if you're like me and need some direction.
      • Laugh. Experts have long known the benefits of laughing--it helps your body in a multitude of ways but, mostly, it just feels good. 
      • Massage. Schedule a massage in the near future so you have something to look forward to. If that isn't an option, indulge at home with a hot bath or lounging around and reading your favorite book or magazine.

      Tips for Better Workouts When You're Stressed:

      • Take baby steps. Thinking about 30 minutes of an activity may feel overwhelming if you're crazy busy. Decide you'll just do a few minutes of something. Chances are, it'll feel so good, you'll keep going.
      • Keep it simple. Sometimes the thought of changing into workout clothes can seem like climbing a mountain. Choose activities that require very little preparation like walking, gardening, cleaning the house or some gentle stretching.
      • Ask for support. It helps to have a workout buddy to keep you honest. Try to get a friend or family member to meet you once a week for a walk in the park or a local fitness class. Knowing someone's waiting for you makes it easier to get going.
      • Make the transition easier. If you tend to stay more sedentary when you're stressed, going from sitting to something active can seem like a big jump. Give yourself 5 or 10 minutes to get your body moving a bit before exercise. Do a little cleaning or take out the trash. Take some time to stretch or simply walk around the house a bit.
      • Give yourself extra time to warm up. If you're doing a high intensity activity (like running or aerobics), give yourself more warm up time than usual. If you usually start out jogging, start with a slow walk. Allow your body all the time it needs to get warm and allow your heart rate to climb gently.
      • Give yourself extra time to cool down. It's always a good idea to end your workout feeling good. Give yourself a good ten minutes to wind down and then spend a few minutes stretching.

      Do what you can to reduce your stress with a healthy dose of exercise. Enjoy the effects of that workout, hydrate, refuel and take care of yourself. Okay, then you can have some wine...

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