How to best exercise to relieve stress [Part 1]
Updated: Oct 11, 2021
It's no secret exercise is known to relieve stress but how best to go about it for the optimal stress busting effect? At the risk of making the simple complex, there are a few things to consider: How severe is the stress? Is it more acute or chronic? How fit are you? Do you already exercise regularly? Are you stressed to the degree where you are run down and hence run the risk of further depleting your immune system if you exercise intensely? With the answer to those questions in mind you’ll be better able to relieve stress through exercise.
What happens when you’re stressed.
It’s useful to understand what happens physically as a result of stress and why that makes exercise an effective, and in my view close to essential, way of relieving it.
The fight flight stress response is an unconscious and essentially involuntary response to enable fleeing or fighting for your survival. This means heart and breathing rate increase, muscles become tense, your liver releases glycogen to fuel you, blood is directed away from internal organs to the muscles. In short you are primed to.......... well, eer, basically- exercise! If you do indeed exercise and take advantage of this primed state you can physiologically restore things to a more normal and essentially healthier level of function. On the other hand if you stay in that state of heightened physical alertness you risk high blood pressure/heart problems, digestive issues, diabetes, severe muscle tension, headaches, the list goes on.
Use the stress response for what it's meant for
Having the body ready to fight or flee gives a clear indicator of 2 great ways of exercising to relieve stress: Simply fight i.e. boxing or similar & flee i.e. run!
There is something cathartic, in a primal kind of way about boxing (the non-human contact type!), which means when you hit the pads with intent it's incredibly satisfying and empowering. To me it almost feels like the stress is leaving my body through my fists and being transferred into the pads or bag. I had a personal training client who was a laywer and she'd often turn up to sessions and announce she needed to box. She wouldn't hold back as she gave the pads a good whack and as a result got the full stress relieving effect. There are 2 important points to be mindful of with boxing though: * Technique matters for preserving hands and wrists. * Secondly you can fatigue really quickly, especially if you’re not a regular strength trainer as upper body cardio fitness is more difficult than most think, so mixing it up with some running and kicking is wise.
Imagine you were to run for your life, you wouldn't dawdle. It's most likely be close to continuous as well. As the many people who are hooked on jogging will attest to this is a basic and reliable stress buster, whats more you can even get the euphoria from runners high. The potential downside here is that you need to build your fitness to be able to run continuously and not everyone has a body suited to the impact of running.
What else is incredibly useful
Although I do believe boxing is the best way of relieving stress (closely followed by, or combined with running) that doesn’t mean there aren’t numerous other incredibly effective and appropriate ways of exercising to reduce stress.
Weight training and all types of cardiovascular activity are most certainly going to have a significant stress reducing effect while offering all the general and specific benefits that exercise is constantly being shown to offer.
There are a multitude of factors that will determine which is most appropriate and practical for you. Time, injury history, fitness level, health, accessibility all matter. Given that primed state that results from significant stress though there is a level of intensity needed to effectively and quickly shift to more normal physiological function.
How long or hard do you need to go?
As a guide 20-30 minutes of close to continuous activity at an intensity of 7 out of 10 (0 being doing nothing and 10 being the hardest you can possibly go) will give you a good chance of restoring a more relaxed state. This could be in the form of circuit style weight/strength training, 5 minutes on 4 different cardio machines at the gym or a solid bike ride.
What it takes to reach that 7 out of 10 intensity of course is going to be very different for a really fit person as opposed to someone who hasn’t been exercising regularly. This doesn’t really matter though, as in both cases you’d be getting the desired effect physiologically. Although some fitter individuals may find they need to push it up to 8 or 9/10 or go for longer.
This is not to disregard lower intensity movement such as walking or yoga which most definitely work to relieve stress, however I'm viewing things from a conventional exercise perspective and how to most significantly shift from that stressed physical state. To do that you need to move vigorously like you would if you had to fight or take flight. You’ll likely find the intense movement compliments the less vigorous activity really well, so you could include both high and low levels of exercise in your overall program or within a workout. This leads to my next point about stretching. [CONTINUE READING PART 2]