Here’s the sitch: you’re stressed, anxious and tired after a hard day at the office and you feel like there’s so much on your plate already – should you be exercising when you’re this stressed? Will it make your anxiety worse?
Yes, you should definitely work out when you’re stressed. Science has proven, time and again, that regular exercise is important for improving your mood and reducing stress levels.
Why exercising when you’re stressed is a great idea
Regular cardiovascular activity reduces your heart rate’s reactivity, which lowers your heart rate in times of psychological stress, reducing that yucky “flight or fight” response feeling. Plus, exercise releases endorphins, your body’s “feel good” chemicals, which improve your mood.
When you’re stressed – don’t skip your workout! Exercise will actually help with that anxiety.
In fact, as a long term anxiety sufferer, regular exercise is one of the most important tools I have.
Sometimes I find that when I “zone in” to what’s going on in my body while working out, I can “zone out” of the storm going on in my brain. It’s kind of like a meditation – but because I’m not sitting still and trying to empty my mind, intrusive thoughts aren’t as persistent as they are in a normal meditation.
Also, when I’m anxious I get a hit of adrenaline that feels uncomfortable – maybe you’ve felt this too? Getting my heart pumping and my body moving helps me move that adrenaline through my body and satisfies the flight or fight response, helping me to calm down easier.
Regular exercise each day has long term benefits on stress levels too. It improves your mood, confidence, and concentration, and provides a touchstone of stability, which will reduce your anxiety overall.
It also helps you sleep easier – which can be difficult if you’re stressed out.
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When it can be a bad idea to work out if you're stressed
Not all exercise is beneficial for stress. Sometimes, if you have a lot on your plate, rest is best.
If you exercise too much or at a high intensity, and don’t allow your body enough time to recover, it can actually make the problem a lot worse.
Your body – and mind – both need rest days to recover from your regular training – at least one day a week, but ideally more.
Also, if your life’s incredibly chaotic, adding high intensity workouts into the mix will only make the problem worse, because your nervous system doesn’t have a chance to deregulate.
This can mess with your sleep, and it just goes round and round in a vicious cycle.
If hardcore workouts are going to become just another thing to add to an overfull plate, it’s wise to take a step back and assess whether they’re really the best thing for your body (and sanity) right now.
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The best types of exercise for stress management
For general health, it’s recommended that the average adult gets a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate activity a week. If you’re already stressed out, choosing a form of exercise that is enjoyable and realistic for your schedule is the best way to relax – and meet your movement targets.
150 minutes of moderate activity, spread over most days of the week, equals roughly 25 minutes, 6 days a week.
This might look like:
Going for a walk with your dog in the park
Playing a game of sport with your kids
Going for a hike in nature
Putting on the radio and dancing to your favourite songs
The forms of exercise I find most relaxing are those I enjoy doing, and that easily fit in with my lifestyle.
Have a good think about what works for you. There’s no right or wrong.
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Physical activity is good for you – and it’s great for stress management, both in the short and long term. Just don’t overdo it and make exercise “another thing” on your overflowing to do list.
Prioritising daily movement for 25 minutes in a way that you enjoy, and/or that fits your lifestyle, is the best way to exercise for stress management. Remember to listen to your body and put your wellbeing first – deep down, you know what you truly need.
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