I like setting small attainable goals. Tell me to exercise for my stress and anxiety, and I find myself in a quandary. Should I get up early and hit the nature center for a bracing hike (or will that take too long)? Wait, I could do Pilates in the living room and lunges with weights in the hall. Or maybe I should call a friend and do a sunrise kayak adventure! What if I promise myself, I’ll go for a bike ride after work? In the end, the directive to “exercise” is just too big for me. It causes stress and anxiety instead of relieving it!
Exercise for Stress and Anxiety
However, if you tell me to exercise 5 days a week for 30 minutes to alleviate stress, I get it. And the U.S. government tells us that is all it takes for substantial health benefits. This is a goal I can fit into any routine. And I can add to the goal or moderate intensity when/if I choose. The physical and mental health benefits of exercise have long been established. Exercise can give hours of relief from depression and lessen the likelihood of an anxiety disorder by 25%! This is vital news, as anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults.
Even a short walk can reduce stress and improve concentration and cognitive function. When your body feels better, so does your brain (and vice versa). Physical activity produces endorphins (chemicals in the brain that reduce stress and pain); this is particularly helpful for those in recovery from opioids and other drugs. Exercise also improves one’s ability to sleep, which in turn reduces stress. Convinced?
For substantial health benefits, adults should do at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) to 300 minutes (5 hours) a week of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) to 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity… Adults should also do muscle-strengthening activities…on 2 or more days a week, as these activities provide additional health benefits.
Fitness Tips for Managing Stress and Anxiety
Set a Goal
If you already have an exercise plan, you can skip to the next tip. If you are just starting a routine or recalibrating, set daily goals and aim for consistency. In other words, it is better to take a walk every day for 15 minutes than to be a weekend warrior. There is never a “perfect time” to exercise, so hit the stairs or take your 30-minute walk on your lunch break. Buddy-up with someone who will add accountability to your routine. Or leave hand weights and bands in the room with the TV and do a few curls while watching The Handmaid’s Tale for inspiration…
Find the Exercise you Love!
I am reminded of an unfortunate Zumba experience I had at an Arizona spa. The instructor was an overly exuberant, leotard wearing drill sergeant who kept screaming over the pounding beat, “SHAKE YOUR MONEY MAKER!” I learned in 50 excruciating minutes that Zumba was not my “thing”.
Hiking, on the other hand, is my very favorite thing to do. And the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) agrees, “Being in green environments boosts various aspects of thinking, including attention, memory and creativity, in people both with and without depression.” Looking for green? Michigan is teeming with state parks, shorelines and forest trails.
Patience is a Virtue
If you are just starting an exercise program, it will take a few weeks to get your stride. So don’t join an advanced spinning class (another of my exercise rude awakenings) before you take off the training wheels on your bike. Long-term fitness includes patience and downtime too.
Distractions While Exercising?
Walking has the added benefit of distractions along the route. Animals and bird song, the neighbor’s home improvement project. or an approaching hiker break up the monotony, as does the changing terrain. But a podcast, audio book or great music can also transport you from the treadmill on a rainy day. Boring exercise is not sustainable. Word to the wise – if your earbuds are in, don’t get too distracted and remain watchful of traffic and other hazards when outdoors.
The Buddy System for Stress Relief
Recruit an exercise partner. It is easier to stick to a routine, especially a new routine, if you have someone to keep you accountable. Those in recovery understand that a like-minded friend can help to keep you motivated, challenged, and most importantly – laughing.
Weather, Weariness, No One to Exercise With, and Other Excuses
The reason the 5 days X 30-minute exercise schedule is so great, is that it is hard to find an excuse to not do it. If you are feeling tired, a half-hour of exercise will up your energy and boost creativity. Alone? You can find a zoom exercise class, wake up Fido and take a stroll, or venture out solo. Bad weather? A wise person once said, “There is no bad weather, only bad clothes.” Anyone who lives in Michigan knows that weather can be a disappointment (especially on weekends for some reason…). Rain and snow gear, layers, and comfortable footwear are essentials for even the briefest trek.
A Body in Motion…
Sir Isaac Newton proposed the law of inertia, in 1687. He said, “A body at rest tends to remain at rest. A body in motion tends to stay in motion. Bodies will continue in their current state, whether at rest or in motion, unless acted on by a greater outside force.”
An outside force like the pandemic, Sir Isaac? Of course Isaac Newton was talking about the velocity of an object in his law of inertia, but the metaphor works for people too. Many of us have relaxed our routines (often necessarily) during the COVID-19 restrictions. And it is difficult to get back into motion after the long inertia of the pandemic. But once you put exercise into your routine, and begin to feel its lasting mental and physical health benefits, it becomes a natural part of your day. Just remember to hydrate. Now, get moving!