Best Workouts to Manage Stress
| 4 min read
On days when we feel especially stressed out, it’s not unusual for those emotions to follow us right into our workouts. But somewhere in the middle of a walk around the neighborhood, or 10 minutes into a session on the rowing machine, we might notice our tight shoulders start to relax. The same goes for any kind of yoga or stretching exercise - we tend to leave some of our tension on those foam mats. But how does this work, and what are the best workouts when we talk about managing stress?
Stress by the numbers
Finding ways to manage stress is a life skills tool we all need. In recent years, studies have shown that when Americans talk about stress, the numbers can be mind-boggling. A poll titled Stress in America, conducted in 2022 for the American Psychological Association, found that more than a quarter of U.S. adults surveyed - 27% - described themselves as having such a high stress level that it felt impossible to function normally in their daily lives. And 34% of adults taking the poll described themselves as “completely overwhelmed” by stress most days. This was especially true of adults ages 18 to 44, with younger women posting the highest numbers.
This research also showed that stress was having a noticeable effect on health. The survey found the respondents reporting physical problems including:
- Headaches - 38%
- Fatigue - 35%
- Feeling anxious or nervous - 34%
- Feeling sad or depressed - 33%
- Changes in sleep habits - 32%
- Constant worrying - 30%
Why exercise helps us manage stress
Exercise can play a role in helping you manage your daily stress load. We already know that a good workout can make our body better, boosting our heart and lung health and making muscles stronger. But exercise is good for the brain, too. A good workout that gets your heart rate up also increases the body’s production of endorphins, known as the feel-good chemicals commonly associated with the “runner’s high” many people feel after pushing themselves while jogging or during any physical exercise. This provides a calming effect on the brain and lessens our body’s fight-or-flight response that can be typical in high-stress situations.
Almost any exercise that counts as a cardio workout can be used to manage stress. Health experts recommend about 150 minutes each week of moderate exercise to improve or maintain your health. This equals out to a 30-minute workout at least five days a week. Some of the easiest forms of moderate exercise that can be used to manage stress include:
- Brisk walking, alone or with a friend or family member
- Fast-paced court games like tennis or pickleball
- Swimming laps
Exercise routines that include meditation-based movements like yoga and tai chi are also good stress-relievers.
Tips for an exercise routine
If you’re new to a regular exercise routine, start slow. You can get your minutes in by walking around your neighborhood and then add more forms of exercise into your schedule as you feel comfortable. And if you have not exercised in a while, always start by checking in with your healthcare provider.
If you exercise a few times a week, but are still feeling stressed, it might be time to look at your schedule and mix things up a bit. Some tips:
- More short sessions. If you typically push all your workouts to the weekends, start fitting in more short exercise sessions during your work week so they can provide stress relief on a daily basis.
- Focus on movement that you like. If you’re not looking forward to meeting friends for that crowded workout class, skip it and exercise solo. Pick your favorite music, put in your earbuds and work your body at your own pace.
- Treat yourself with exercise. For example, set a hard limit at work so you can take a lunch break, then get outside for a fast-paced walk and some fresh air.
- Exercise in bursts. If you are staring down a crazy week-ahead schedule and can’t find regular 30-minute windows for exercise, make them smaller. Find three 10-minute gaps in your day. Then hop on your treadmill, take the dog out for a quick walk, or lift some hand-held weights.
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