How Exercise Can Help You Manage Your Stress Levels

We’ve all heard that exercise can help manage stress levels, but how exactly does that work? What types of exercise are most helpful for reducing stress—and are they exercises you’re even capable of doing? How do you find time to exercise if your busy schedule is the very thing responsible for stressing you out in the first place? No matter your age, health or situation, it is possible to utilize exercise as a stress reducer, which may even get you on a healthier and calmer (if not totally stress-free) path. 

Sweating Your Way Through Stress

The physical benefits of exercise are well known, but how does physical activity affect your stress levels? The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) notes, “Studies show that [exercise] is very effective at reducing fatigue, improving alertness and concentration, and at enhancing overall cognitive function. This can be especially helpful when stress has depleted your energy or ability to concentrate.” There’s also the mind-body connection to consider: When you’re stressed, your brain is affected, and since your brain is neurally connected to the rest of your body, your body can feel the fatiguing effects of stress as well. So, as the ADAA points out, “it stands to reason that if your body feels better, so does your mind.” Additionally, researchers have found that those who participate in exercise on a regular basis have lower levels of tension, a more stabilized mood, get better sleep and have higher self-esteem. All of this leads to—you guessed it: Less stress. 

Chat with your doc

Now that you’ve decided getting a little more active is preferable to tearing your hair out from stress, it’s wise to consult your doctor and make her aware of your plans. Ensure you’re healthy enough to take on an new exercise routine. The Department of Health and Human Services recommends adults get 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week (or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week) at minimum. It’s also a good idea to add in some weight training a few times per week to help support your muscles. Again, chat with your doctor about the types of aerobic exercise and weight training that are best suited to your body and health. 

Pick your Stress-Reducing Activity

Once your doctor has give you ideas on the best types of exercise for you, consider which options interest you most. The more you enjoy your exercise routine, the more likely you are to stick with it. If you’re looking for activities on the lower impact side of the spectrum, consider yoga, Tai Chi, water or step aerobics, hiking, ballroom dancing, rollerblading, cross country skiing, golf or snowshoeing. If you’re looking for more high-energy activities, check out a kickboxing class, start running, join a hip hop dance group, or simply create your own circuit routine of jumping jacks, burpees, squat jumps and jump rope. Even gardening or walking stairs can help you get started on the path to a more stress-free life.

Chart out Your Exercise Plan

Once you’ve chosen the activity – or activities – that are bound to make you a healthier, happier, more well-adjusted person, map them out into a routine. Write down SMART goals — specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-limited goals. First, pinpoint what days of the week and times you have available to carve out a 30-60 block for exercise. Then pencil in what activity you plan on doing in that time slot. For example, if your Tuesday evenings are relatively open, plan to attend that 60-minute hip hop class after work each Tuesday. If Wednesdays are packed, make sure you get in two, 15-minute brisk walks on those days. Block out longer chunks on weekends you’d like to devote to new exercises you’ve been meaning to try, or see if you can incorporate family activities like hiking into your weekend plans.

After a month or so of following your new exercise plan, self-evaluate. Are you feeling less stressed? More rested and self-confident? If not, take a look at your routine and re-adjust. If necessary, it may help to talk to a friend or professional about the stresses you’ve been facing.