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Exercise To Reduce Stress

Exercise To Reduce Stress: How To Work Around Common Obstacles


Updated February 18, 2012

Exercise To Reduce Stress

Exercise classes offer a convenient way to reduce stress.

Photo from iStockPhoto.com
One way to minimize feelings of stress is to maximize feelings of relaxation and cultivate a good mood. With exercise, you're able to do both! Exercise is a fantastic stress relief tool because it minimizes stress in several ways (provides a change of scenery, an outlet for frustrations, and a potential social tie-in, to name a few), and can help you to reach a better mood by providing mood-enhancing chemicals and, with practice, less emotional reactivity and greater long-term resilience to stress. In fact, according to one study, researchers have found that a 30 minute walk on a treadmill boosted the mood and well-being of subjects with major depressive disorders.

One issue that many stressed people have with exercise is that it takes time to stay on track with an exercise program. For busy people who already have a full schedule, it's difficult to find a 30- or 60-minute window each day for the gym; for someone feeling overwhelmed, the couch in front of the t.v. may feel much more inviting after a long, stressful day.

If this resonates with you, don't be so quick to throw in the towel! There are a few simple ways you can work stress-relieving exercise into your day without the act in itself adding to your stress or overwhelm: There are few techniques more effective than exercise to reduce stress. Exercise is effective on multiple levels: you may feel less stressed while you are engaging in physical activity, but regular exercise can lead to less emotional reactivity to stressors, which translates into greater resilience toward stress in the long term. Given the added bonus of contributing to a healthy body and boosting one's mood, exercise is a perfect option for feeling and looking great in addition to how effectively it can help you to reduce stress.

Unfortunately, exercise may not seem like the most attractive option for the people who may need it most: the busy and the overwhelmed. While busy people are among those who may be the most in need of exercise to reduce stress, the prospect of finding 30 or 60 uninterrupted minutes for the gym each day may feel stressful in itself, and may seem like an impossibility. For the overwhelmed, techniques that focus mainly on relaxation, such as breathing or journaling, may feel much more attractive than exercise to reduce stress. (Often, the t.v. will win out above all other options, which can be unfortunate if it is at the expense of regular exercise.) If you find yourself putting off working out, you may want to reconsider. Exercise need not take over your life to be an effective stress relief tool!

The following tips can help you to maintain a regular exercise schedule, regardless of how stressed, busy, or overwhelmed you may feel now:

  • Break It Up: If there are no 30- or 60- minute blocks of time to be found in your schedule, revel in the knowledge that exercise can be just as beneficial if it's broken up into smaller sessions, like two 15-minute blocks, or even three 10-minute ones. As long as you get your heart rate up (which can be done rather quickly with the right aerobic exercises), you will experience a benefit. If you can't find 10 minutes in your day here and there, you may need to cut down on your obligations.
  • Take It Slow: Starting with walking and other easier forms of exercise can be a nice way to ease yourself into a more active lifestyle if you're already feeling overwhelmed. You can always build up your level of activity, but something is better than nothing; shooting for too much too soon might make you want to stop yourself before you ever get going.
  • Make It Fun: When you engage in physical activity that's enjoyable, you are more likely to relieve stress, and more likely to stick with it! Rather than walking on a treadmill, why not take a hike with friends or walk around your neighborhood with someone whose company you enjoy? (Unless a treadmill sounds like fun to you; then, by all means, tread away!) Joining a class at a gym or in your community (many people like Zumba, hip-hop, or yoga classes) can provide you with a fun form of exercise, another layer of motivation, and some social support to boot. Don't settle for exercise that feels grueling; you can make it fun.
  • Add Music: Music provides us with a boost when we need it, and can be a wonderful tool for stress relief as well. As mentioned in the book, "Your Playlist Can Change Your Life," music can rev up your physiology and provide you with more energy for your workouts, and can make them more enjoyable as well. Especially for those who don't have (or want) workout buddies, grabbing your iPod and getting moving can be the perfect answer.
  • Make A Plan: Planning ahead can help with a great variety of lifestyle changes. Simply deciding to make a change can be useful, but putting together a plan (complete with rewards for your success and contingency plans for any slip-ups) can ensure that successful change comes much more easily. Why not pretend it's New Year's Day and commit to turning over a new leaf with exercise? These tips on maintaining goals and this free e-course on making healthy changes can both set you on the right path--the path to successful stress management and a healthier body.
  • Try Just A Little: Because even a three-minute stretch of exercise can help with stress relief, working any exercise into your day can be better than not doing so. If committing to an exercise program feels a little overwhelming, try for whatever you feel you have the ability to tackle, starting with just three minutes and working your way up. You may just surprise yourself with how much of a workout you end up getting, but even those three minutes can surprise you with how good they make you feel.
Maintaining a regular exercise habit can help you to feel less stressed, look healthier and more attractive, and enjoy life more. And it's something that's within your grasp. How exercise looks in your lifestyle is up to you, whether it takes the form of classes at the gym, nightly walks with your spouse, an outdoorsy new hobby, or any of the numerous workout options there are. The following resources can get you started with some of these options.

Exercise Resources:


Batholomew, J. B.; Morrison, D.; Ciccolo, J.T. (2005) "Effects of Acute Exercise on Mood and Well-Being in Patients with Major Depressive Disorder." Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 37(12):2032-2037.

Rimmele U, Seiler R, Marti B, Wirtz PH, Ehlert U, Heinrichs M. The level of physical activity affects adrenal and cardiovascular reactivity to psychosocial stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology. October 13, 2008.

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