Too Stressed Out to Exercise? How to Deal

When stress eats your workout

Getty Images/David Moore

Have you ever gotten so stressed out that your only goal is to get through the day without a) Killing someone, b) Stabbing yourself in the eye with a rusty fork and/or c) Crawling under the bed to the comforting softness of the dustballs that have been collecting there since the 80s?

That kind of chronic stress is the worst kind, the kind that eats away at all the healthy behaviors you work so hard at each day.

  The kind of stress that comes from things like: Having a baby, getting a puppy, hosting for the holidays and having your mother-in-law stay visit, all in the same month. Or having to work an extra 15 hours at work the same week you catch a cold, have 3 parties to go to, and a weekend trip to prepare for.

That kind of stress sucks the very life out of you, to the point where you're not doing anything healthy, much less exercising. You're sleep deprived, grabbing fast food on the go and, perhaps, reducing your stress with not-very-healthy things like drinking, stress eating and driving your car like you stole it because you do not have time for all these morons who are actually driving the speed limit.

Trying to stick to exercise in these warlike conditions may only add to your stress, yet you need to move your body if you want to burn off that extra tension and stay sane.  So, how do you deal with these conflicting needs?

  First, you need to remember just how much exercise can help you right now.

Why Exercise Beats Stress

  1. It gets you away from what's stressing you out - A workout is the perfect excuse for escaping a stressful situation and it can do wonders for your disposition after, say, having stayed up half the night with a fussy baby or shouted "NO!" for the 849th time to your new puppy.  When you exercise, your body releases feel-good endorphins that help kill the pain of your life, at least for a little while.
  1. It keeps your weight under control - Maybe you don't give a flying fart about your weight right now but, someday, you will, especially since stress contributes to weight gain.  When you're stressed, your body releases cortisol which causes an increase in appetite and extra fat storage around the abs.  Couple that with the emotional eating we often use as a defense mechanism and you may end up with some serious weight gain.  Keeping a maintenance level of exercise can help mitigate any damage you might be doing to your weight loss goals.
  2. It calms you down -  In the short-term, stress hormones cause that panicky fight-or-flight feeling. Like when you get home and see that the puppy has eaten half of your couch.  You want to yell at the puppy.  You want to strangle the puppy.  You want to kill the puppy.  Taking a walk or doing some other physical activity will help you channel that energy into a more helpful behavior...and one that won't require any jail time.
  3. It helps you focus - Stress can be so draining, it's hard to concentrate on even the simplest of activities.  Making the grocery list suddenly seems impossible when your thoughts are scattered and your head feels fuzzy and unfocused from chronic stress.  Studies have shown that exercise can reduce fatigue while sharpening your concentration and improving cognitive functioning, helping you get through life with a little less struggle. 

    You know all the reasons to exercise while your stressed, but what about the fact that even thinking about exercise stresses you out even more?  Start by taking your workouts down to the bare bones and forgetting about the rules.  Make it your goal just to stay moving during this time, even if it's at a crawl.

    How to Exercise When You're Too Stressed to Exercise

    1. Keep it simple - When you're stressed, even the thought of putting on workout clothes, much less slogging through a workout, may be too much to take.  Give yourself permission to do the simplest, easiest thing in that moment.  Walking doesn't require much more than a pair of shoes and, if you're working out at home, you can easily go through a yoga workout or even a basic strength workout while still in your pajamas.
    2. Forget the rules - We often create more stress when we try to force our stressed out selves into our normal workout routine.  An hour of exercise just may not work right now, but you could probably find 10 minutes, right? 
    3. Don't force it - If you start exercising and, five minutes in, you feel like you could lie down on the sidewalk and sleep for the next 12 hours, that's a good sign your body needs rest more than exercise.
    4. Reward yourself - Drum up a little motivation by promising yourself a treat for finishing your workout.  An hour to zone out on Netflix or play a video game.  Dinner out with friends or a spa treatment.  Exercising is the treat for your body...your mind needs treats too.

    Stress can wreak havoc on anyone's life, but keeping some semblance of order in your exercise routine can help you relieve some of that stress and feel more in control of your life.  Once the stress eases, you won't have to worry about getting back to an abandoned exercise routine and you can feel good about getting through a stressful time with a few more healthy behaviors than before.


    Penedo FJ1, Dahn JR. Exercise and well-being: a review of mental and physical health benefits associated with physical activity. Curr Opin Psychiatry. 2005 Mar;18(2):189-93.

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