Stress is a fact of life, but it can be a double-edged sword. In small doses, it can boost alertness and performance. But when you’re constantly stressed, that can have a significant downside.
“We have this really incredible stress response system in the body that’s equipped to turn on and gear up when demands exceed capacity,” says Chelsi Day, a sports psychologist with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. And this is great when you’re trying to escape a predator, as our paleolithic ancestors likely had to. But it’s less awesome when it’s triggered constantly by the stressors of modern society, like an endlessly full email inbox or bad traffic.
The stress response system releases hormones in response to stressors. In small bursts, it can help you run faster or feel less pain. But when those hormonal fluctuations become chronic, that can lead to health problems. Chronic stress has been linked with chronic health conditions, including depression,cardiovascular disease, diabetes and possibly even cancer.
But regular physical exercise can help get your stress response system back into a more normal balance. “Routine exercise helps to release natural endorphins that may reduce stress,” says Dr. Tara Menon, a gastroenterologist at the Wexner.
The Best Stress-Busting Exercises
- Brisk walking.
- Jogging or running.
- HIIT workouts.
Aerobic exercise may be the fastest way to get stress-busting benefits. Aerobic exercise elevates your heart rate, which “releases endorphins in the brain. These neurochemicals are the feel-good chemicals that make you more resilient,” Day says. Resiliency helps you cope with stressful situations in a healthy manner.
Excellent examples of aerobic exercises that can curb stress and anxiety include:
- Brisk walking. Perhaps the simplest way to get some stress-busting exercise is to go for a brisk walk. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that some studies suggest that a 10-minute walk can be enough to restore calm and may be just as helpful as a 45-minute or longer walk when it comes to reducing stress and anxiety.
- Jogging or running. If your joints are up to it, try picking up the pace for even more anxiety release by jogging or running. Just make sure you have a safe route and shoes that adequately support and cushion your feet.
- Swimming. A full-body workout, swimming is great for the cardiovascular system and offers some resistance training elements too because water is denser than air and will resist your movements more than when you move on land. Being submerged in water can also be very soothing for some people and make for an even better reduction in stress.
- Cycling. Cycling is easy on the joints and can provide a heart-pumping workout. Just don’t forget your helmet and watch out for cars and potholes. Or hop on a stationary cycle for the safest option.
- Dancing. Is there anything more life-affirming or joyful than simply busting a move to some great music? Dancing can be a wonderful way to ease stress while getting a solid workout. It can also be an intensely social activity, which can also help foster a sense of connectivity and support, further helping you feel less anxious.
- Boxing. When you get really stressed or mad, do you ever want to hit something? Well, if you have a boxing bag or a sparring partner, boxing can be a wonderful way to burn off stress, anger and other intense emotions while providing a fabulous heart-pumping workout.
- HIIT workouts. High-intensity interval training gets your heart pumping fast by mixing aerobic, anaerobic and strength elements into a compact workout that may pay big dividends in health and wellness.
Other Stress-Releasing Physical Activities
Other forms of exercise that may be less intense but just as helpful for restoring calm and easing stress include:
- Yoga or tai chi. Yoga is often thought of as the gold standard in exercising for stress or anxiety relief. Another gentle practice called tai chi matches slow, deliberate movement with breathing exercises. Whether you do an aerobic hot house yoga workout that gets you sweating or a super gentle breathing and stretching practice that barely seems like exercise, yoga and tai chi can connect the mental and physical parts of yourself for great benefit to body and mind.
- Breathing exercises. One of the best anxiety-soothing aspects of yoga is how it connects the breath to movement. Breathing exercises are a powerful means of helping you calm down and re-center when you’re dealing with stress or anxiety.
- Gardening. Working in the garden can get you moving and more physically active than you might realize. Stretching, bending, digging and carrying plants, soil or a full watering can around the garden can work a range of muscles and elevate your heart rate slightly while helping you beautify your space and calm your mind.
- Strolling in the woods or along a beach. Also sometimes called forest bathing, getting out in nature to enjoy a gentle walk in the woods or along a waterfront can do wonders for alleviating anxiety and stress.
- Stretching. Even just a gentle stretching program can give you the option to move within mobility limitations and focus on your physical health to alleviate stress and anxiety.
Which Exercise Is Best?
With regard to which exercise is best, Day says the one you can stick to regularly and enjoy most is probably your best bet because you’ll be more likely to engage with that activity regularly. If you really hate running but enjoy dancing, opt for the dancing workout.
As to how much exercise you should get for stress release, there’s no one-size-fits-all prescriptive amount that will magically alleviate all your stress. Rather, you should aim to work out as frequently as your schedule allows without putting yourself at risk of injury. If 10 minutes a day is all you can manage, that’s way better than nothing. And Menon says even modest increases in physical activity can make a difference. “Always set reasonable goals for exercising.”
For reference, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends getting at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) to 300 minutes (5 hours) a week of moderate-intensity exercise. Alternatively, you can aim for getting just 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) to 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity. You can use an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity to hit those targets. Aerobic activity should be spread throughout the week for best effect.
Other Ways to Curb Stress
Physical activity is one of the fastest ways to bleed off stress. In addition, Day recommends taking some time to “identify your stressors and manage them.”
Such non-exercise interventions may include:
- Managing your time better. If you’re always short of time, running late or overwhelmed by the clock, take a look at your daily schedule and see if you can find a way to better manage your time. Maybe getting up just a few minutes earlier each day and writing a to-do task can help you feel less anxious.
- Getting enough sleep. Getting adequate sleep is a critical component of staying healthy, and it can do wonders for helping you cope with the stress of everyday life. Prioritize sleep. Go to bed and get up at the same time each day. Keep your phone and other distracting electronic devices out of the bedroom for a better night’s sleep.
- Eating well. Diet is a key piece of any health regimen, and making sure you’re avoiding processed foods and opting for whole, fresh foods including lots of leafy greens, whole grains and lean proteins can help you have the energy and nutrients you need to feel and perform your best each day.
- Practicing mindfulness. Day also recommends practicing mindful eating, in which you shut off the TV or put down your phone and focus on the food in front of you and eat slowly. “Listen to the body.” Mindfulness should extend to other activities too, including exercise and work. Maryanna Klatt, professor of clinical family medicine at the Wexner, says that mindfulness is “an approach that helps us wake up to the way we are really living as things are happening.” It means being in the moment, reducing outside distractions and focusing on the task at hand. Deep breathing, yoga and some forms of psychotherapy can all help you foster a practice of mindfulness.
- Learning to say no. If you’re constantly overbooked, perhaps it’s because you’re struggling to prioritize your own health and wellness. Learn to say no when others ask you to do too much.
- Adding meditation. Adding a meditation practice to your day – even if you only have five or 10 minutes to spare – can work wonders on your stress levels. Meditation doesn’t have to be complicated, and you don’t need any equipment to do it. Just get comfortable, close your eyes and focus in on your breathing. “The key to beginning to meditate is to find a comfortable, quiet place where you can close your eyes and find a restful state of mind,” says Darby Fox, a child and adolescent family therapist based in the greater New York City area. “The first few times, just think of resting, consciously. Think of slowing your heart rate. Stillness is the beginning of meditation.” With practice, meditation will come easier to you. You can also try a guided meditation app or series you can download from the internet to build your practice.