Exercise: The Best Stress Relief

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. And stress levels recently have increased, in part due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In fact, during COVID the American Psychological Association reported the first significant increase in average stress levels among American adults since the survey began in 2007.

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. And the best way to do that is with exercise.

When we're stressed, what's the first thing we do? Have a drink? Pick a fight with your spouse? Flip off 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 help is doing something physical, something that gets your mind and body out of that fight or flight stress response and brings those stress hormones under control so your body feels better. And there are different kinds of exercise that can help, depending on how you're feeling and what you can handle.

Simple Unstructured Activities

Often, as your body gets into its own rhythms, you can let your mind go and work out problems, find solutions, or just daydream for awhile. Try these:

  • Work in the yard
  • Take a slow bike ride
  • Take a walk by yourself or with a friend
  • Wash the car
  • Practice mindless or rhythmic activity, like walking, raking leaves, or cleaning out drawers

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 make you feel more relaxed. Some ideas to explore include:

  • 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. Try these interval workouts.
  • Circuit training—These workouts move fast, keeping your mind engaged while your troubles fall into the background.
  • 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. Try these strength training workouts.

Mind and Body Activities

Getting some strength training and cardio into your day can help perk you up, but 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 workout combines moves from both disciplines.
  • Mindfulness—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. Try this guided meditation if you need some direction.
  • Laughing—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.

Takeaways and Tips

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. And consider the following when turning to exercise to help you with stress relief:

  • Take baby steps—Thinking about 30 minutes of an activity may feel overwhelming if you're crazy busy. Decide that 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 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 and holds you accountable.
  • 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 five or 10 minutes to get your body moving a bit before exercise. Try light cleaning, some stretching, 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 10 minutes to wind down and then spend a few minutes stretching.
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Article Sources
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  1. Stress in America 2020. American Psychological Association. May 2020