When you're stressed with the demands of work or home life, it can feel overwhelming and counterproductive to add another item to your to-do list. You might not feel like you have time to squeeze in a workout, but exercise can be one of the most powerful tools in combating the stress of getting it all done.
"Stress is a combination of anxiety — fear of the unknown — and depression — hurt held inward. Exercise is an outlet to let out that tension," says sports psychologist Jarrod Spencer, PhD.
"For many people, when they exercise, they're working emotional stress out of the body," Spencer tells LIVESTRONG.com. "Exercise lets your mind think and process information on a very high level."
The best part: You don't have to commit to a high-intensity exercise routine for positive results. You can start slow. Gradually build up to a fitness plan that works for you and makes sense with the stressors you're currently navigating.
"Exercise is about an energy exchange," Spencer says. "Carve out a half hour or hour for yourself each day and commit to it."
Stay as consistent as you can, he adds. "Consistency in anything is very important, and that's true with exercise and how it helps [with stress]."
He recommends four types of exercise that can serve as stepping stones to increase movement and reduce stress. Here's how to get started.
Stress can take a toll on your muscles, whether you tense your neck and shoulders while you're hunched over your laptop during a hectic workday or clench your jaw throughout a difficult conversation with a loved one.
When you release some of this physical muscle tension through stretching, you may feel less emotional stress, too, according to the American Council for Exercise. Better still, you can reap the benefits just by stretching for 10 minutes, three to four times a week, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
Start with the areas of your body that feel tight. If that's everywhere, focus on the shoulders, neck, calves, hamstrings and hip flexors, where it's common to hold tension.
The ancient practice of yoga is well known for relieving stress and improving mental and emotional health, not to mention strength and balance, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
While people have practiced yoga for thousands of years, science has recently begun to examine its health benefits more closely.
For example, in a February 2018 study of a small group of women in the International Journal of Preventative Medicine, practicing yoga three times a week for four weeks relieved stress and improved mood.
If you're new to yoga, you can get started with follow-along videos online, Spencer says. Explore different types of yoga, such as Hatha, Ashtanga or Vinyasa, until you find the style and routine you enjoy most.
Walking is one of the most cost-effective, accessible, stress-relieving workouts — and it strengthens your muscles and improves your cardiovascular fitness at the same time.
In a May 2018 study in Behavioral Sciences, walking reduced levels of the stress-related hormone cortisol and improved how people perceived their own emotional stress, especially if they walked in nature.
To walk the stress away, all you really need is comfortable shoes and clothing. Then, look for a nearby walking path, park or hiking trail. Gradually increase your pace and how far you walk over time.
During stressful times, you might wish you could run away from your problems. Turns out, science supports running for reducing stress.
Exercises like running release calming and relaxing brain chemicals — hence the saying "runner's high," according to Harvard Health Publishing.
"People who run say they do their best thinking — clear their mind — while they're running," Spencer says.
If you're new to running or haven't exercised in a while, get the all-clear from your health care provider, and then set realistic goals. You might want to grow comfortable with brisk walking first before moving up to alternating between periods of walking and jogging.
Invest in some good running shoes and build up your pace and distance gradually.
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: "Yoga: What You Need to Know"
- 5 Things You Should Know About Stress
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Exercising to Relax"
- Exercise for Mental Health
- ACE: "10 Benefits of Stretching"
- The Affect of Yoga on Stress, Anxiety, and Depression in Women
- International Journal of Preventative Medicine: "The Effect of Yoga on Stress, Anxiety, and Depression in Women"
- Behavioral Sciences: "Levels of Nature and Stress Response"