Some days are just tough. On those days, when I get home, all I want to do is plop on the couch and reach for the kinds of foods that won’t do me any good… Yet realistically, the best thing would be to exercise—one of the best stress reliever!
Stress isn’t just a mental or emotional issue – it can seriously hurt you physically. Chronic tension can be the culprit behind both long-term conditions (depression, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure) and everyday health woes (headaches, back pain, insomnia, upset stomach, anxiety, anger). And stress isn’t gender-neutral: research shows that women experience it more acutely than men and they are more susceptible to the physiological effects of chronic stress. But crashing on the sofa isn’t the answer.
Sweat it out instead.
“The human body isn’t designed to sit all day,” says Jeff Migdow, M.D., an integrative physician in Lenox, Mass. “Just getting up and moving around is a powerful stress reliever. It allows our muscles to move, encourages blood to flow and helps us feel more like ourselves.”
Exercise also gets us breathing deeper, which triggers the body’s relaxation response. Some exercises are more helpful than others. “Running on a treadmill while watching TV really doesn’t cut it,” Migdow says. “Instead, pursue activities that encourage the mind and the body to work together.”
Here are 9 stress-busting ways to exercise:
Yoga postures are a form of strength training, making you more resilient and flexible, which in turn relieves physical tension. It also uses deep breathing, which triggers the body’s relaxation response. Studies have shown that yoga reduces blood pressure too. But yoga’s biggest benefit is the mental focus it promotes. Poses require concentration, “which keeps your mind focused on what you’re doing instead of analyzing, planning and worrying,” says Noel Shroeder, a Boston-based yoga teacher and creator of the Notice Your Experience DVD (yinward.com).
There are yoga classes available that appeal to all ages, temperaments and fitness levels abound at gyms, studios and community colleges. Some classes, such as hatha, are gentler and focus primarily on stress reduction, while others – ashtanga, vinyasa, power, Bikram – are more athletic.
2. Tai Chi
Derived from an ancient Chinese martial art, tai chi (also known as tai chi chuan) links physical movement to the breath. Often called “meditation in motion,” tai chi promotes a focus on the present – a mental absorption in which everyday worries fall away. Tai chi also increases flexibility and boosts energy, which result in an improved sense of well-being. Other benefits include better balance, more restful sleep and increased cardiovascular fitness. Tai chi is comprised of more than 100 gentle, fluid movements that are linked with each other and with your breath; unlike yoga, there are no pauses between the poses. Like yoga, there are several styles of tai chi that range in intensity. Many senior centers, wellness centers and community colleges offer classes.
Similar to tai chi, qigong is considered one of the cornerstones of Chinese medicine, along with acupuncture and herbs. Practicing qigong regularly can promote feelings of serenity, improve sleep and digestion, and increase energy. Like tai chi, qigong helps you be more present in your body, Migdow says.
“Its slow gentle movements and focus on moving in harmony with the breath are extremely relaxing to the nervous system,” he says.
It’s easy to do and requires no classes or special equipment. Walking frequently can reduce the incidence of many of the stress-related conditions, including cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes. People with regular walking regimens also report reduced stress levels and a self-confidence that comes from taking an active role in their well-being. “Walking releases tension from the major muscle groups, deepens the breathing and quiets the nervous system,” Migdow says. “It also gets us out into nature, which is relaxing.
If you’re just getting started on walking for exercise, aim for two 10-minute walks a week. After two or three weeks, gradually increase the frequency and duration of your walks. Five or six 30-minute walks a week are usually recommended to reduce stress and maintain health. To lose weight, you’ll have to make those walks longer when you have time (say, 90 minutes on Sundays) and/or more intense (take a hilly route or ramp up speed). Your breath should be heavy but not labored.
Gardening is actually a low-impact workout. Weeding alone can burn 200 calories an hour, and more strenuous activities, such as hauling bags of dirt or raking, can shed up to 600 calories an hour. But gardening has the stress-busting bonus of putting you in contact with the earth, which refreshes your spirit. Start small. Even one or two herb plants grown on a sunny windowsill can increase your connection to nature.
Dancing has many physical, mental and even emotional benefits. It’s a great workout that improves grace and agility as it raises your heart rate. And researchers have found that people who ballroom dance twice a week have less risk of developing dementia, perhaps because learning new steps challenges your brain too. Dancing also fosters a sense of community and connection to other people, which lowers stress levels and boosts happiness.
Ballroom, salsa, swing or square – take your pick. You can enroll in a class at a studio or a community center. Many music and dance clubs offer free lessons before evening events. Partners are rarely required – all you need are comfortable shoes and a sense of adventure.
7. Circuit Training
Circuit training alternates weight-training moves with cardio, with short rests in between. The result is a high-intensity workout that offers the same benefits of longer exercise sessions in less time (30 minutes or less). It’s short, sweet and pumps up your body’s endorphin level, which improves your mood. Better yet, you don’t have to stress about finding lots of time to fit a workout in
Pilates is a series of exercises that emphasizes body awareness, core strength and proper alignment. “With its equal focus on strengthening and lengthening muscles, Pilates creates a physical harmony that simply doesn’t allow stress to take hold as easily,” says Ellen Barrett, fitness expert. Like yoga, the mental concentration required for Pilates “zaps you into the moment, leaving little mental space for worrying,” Barrett says. Finally, Pilates is known for reducing back and neck pain, another side effect of stress.
A great cardio workout, tennis can prevent many stress-related conditions, such as high blood pressure and heart disease. And because you can’t play tennis alone, the sport keeps you connected to others –a key component of stress reduction. “Working out on the tennis court triggers your brain to release endorphins into your body. Those are the biochemicals that produce euphoric feelings of peace and satisfaction,” says John Sklare.
If you’re new to the sport, take lessons to learn the basics and proper form. Many city parks offer cheap lessons and local leagues. If you play regularly (or want to), consider joining a private tennis club. Many are more affordable than a country club and you’ll gain access to a tennis community.
And don’t forget to check with your doctor before beginning any fitness program…. Or come to one of our classes at Barb’s Fit U! We have so much fun and surely relieve stress!