Exercise: The Best Stress Relief

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Getty Images / Marco Maccarini

If you're like most people, 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. 

While completely getting rid of stress is not possible, learning how to deal with it in a healthy way can actually help alleviate some of the worst symptoms. Find out why exercise can be one of the most effective ways to help you manage your stress.

How Do You Respond to Stress?

When you're stressed, what's the first thing you do? Have a drink? Pick a fight with your spouse? Flip off the driver in front of you? 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, which is to stop, take a deep breath, and think about what you really need at that moment. Keep in mind that each person is different. What you need in a specific moment may be different than what someone else needs or what you might need at a different time.

People tend to gravitate toward something that will provide instant gratification (and yelling at bad drivers can certainly feel good), but that isn't going to provide lasting relief from stress. So it's important to have a toolbox full of options.

What can help is doing something physical, something that gets your mind and body out of that fight-or-flight stress response and brings stress hormones under control so your body feels better.

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

Simple Ways to Stress Less

Often during a workout, your body gets into its own rhythm, and you can let your mind go and work out problems, find solutions, or just daydream for a while. Try these simple solutions to help you de-stress:

  • Participate in a mind/body practice such as meditation or calming yoga
  • Take a slow bike ride
  • Take a walk by yourself or with a friend
  • Wash the car
  • Work in the yard
  • Try a mindless or rhythmic activity, like washing the dishes, raking leaves, or cleaning out drawers

Exercises for Stress Relief

Good old cardio or strength training workouts are ideal for getting your stress levels 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 to explore include:

  • Cardiovascular exercise: There's nothing better than a cardio workout for getting you moving, burning calories, and letting you escape life for a little while. Try these cardio exercises you can do at home.
  • Circuit training: These workouts move fast, keeping your mind engaged while your troubles fall into the background. Try this circuit training workout for beginners.
  • 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 to get started.
  • 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 for ideas.

Mind-Body Activities

Getting some strength training and cardio into your day can help perk you up, but there are other ways to soothe yourself and give your mind time to relax and slow down. These mind-body activities can help you do just that.

  • 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 so you have something to look forward to. If that isn't an option, indulge at home with a hot bath or by lounging around and reading your favorite book or magazine.
  • 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.
  • Mindfulness: Just paying attention to what you're doing can keep you in the present moment, making it one of the best ways to reduce stress.
  • Yoga: This ancient practice 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, the Pilates method forces you to concentrate on what your body is doing while helping you work on core strength, stability, and flexibility.

Get Started With Exercise for Stress Relief

Do what you can to reduce your stress with a healthy dose of exercise. Enjoy the effects of that workout, then hydrate, refuel, and take care of yourself. Remember that exercise can be used as a go-to stress coping mechanism in the heat of the moment, but physical activity can also reduce regular daily stress.

  • Ask for support. It helps to have a workout buddy to hold you accountable. Try to get a friend or family member to meet you once a week for a walk in the park or at a local fitness class. Knowing someone's waiting for you makes it easier to get going and stay motivated.
  • 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.
  • 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 walking 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 gradually.
  • Give yourself extra time to cool down. It's always a good idea to end your workout feeling good. Give yourself at least 10 minutes to wind down and then spend a few minutes stretching.
  • Take baby steps. Thinking about doing 30 minutes of activity may feel overwhelming if you're busy. Decide that you'll just do a few minutes of something. Chances are it'll feel so good that you'll want to keep going.
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2 Sources
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  1. American Psychological Association. Stress a Major Health Problem in The U.S., Warns APA. 2007.

  2. Yim J. Therapeutic benefits of laughter in mental health: a theoretical reviewTohoku J Exp Med. 2016;239(3):243-249. doi:10.1620/tjem.239.243