Exercise has been proven to be one of the most effective methods to reduce stress. But in order for it to be effective, it needs to be done correctly. It's not so much the exercise itself that needs to be done correctly as it is the approach to using it as a stress reducer.
Rule #1- Leave the Stress at its Source
Often the cause of the stress hitches a ride with you to your workout session. I know because I train stressed out people every day and all they want to talk about is what's making them so stressed! In order for exercise to be effective, the stress and the exercise must be separated. Exercise helps regulate cortisol (often called the "stress hormone") while releasing feel good chemicals called endorphins. But if you continue to stress during the workout, the body's ability to relax is compromised and you remain in a state of chronic stress. So leave the stress at its source. If the office is causing the stress, leave it there. If home is stressful, leave it there. Take a break from the cause of the stress and allow the act of exercise to work its medicinal magic!
Rule #2- Use Exercise as Meditation in Motion
During exercise, fresh oxygenated blood is forced throughout the body which helps you to relax and think more clearly. Let the physical activity calm your mind and serve as a distraction from your daily worries. Focus on the movements of your body and get in tune with the muscles you're working. After several repetitions in the gym or laps in the pool or walks around the lake you'll often find yourself in a relaxed state and oblivious to the day's stresses and irritations.
Rule #3- Choose Wisely (who, what, when and where)
A lot of the who (who you exercise with), the what (what type of exercise you choose), the when (the time of day you exercise), and the where (the environment you choose to exercise in) depends on your personality and what causes the stress in your life.
If you're around crowds all day, maybe you're better off exercising with one or two close friends rather than a class setting. And vice-versa, if you work alone maybe group fellowship is the best stress buster for you. Whatever the size of the group, chose people you enjoy being around and limit the EGR's (extra grace required!) The idea is to eliminate stress, not create it!
Exercise is supposed to relax you, help you to feel less anxious and feel good about yourself. So find an activity you enjoy and something you're good at. If you don't enjoy whatever you're doing you won't stick with it and it certainly won't relax you. And if you're no good at it, the activity will only create more stress! So select an activity that fits these parameters and most importantly gets the heart pumping!
The time of day you choose is a personal preference. Your work and family schedule may dictate this as well. If you find yourself more stressed before going to work, get a morning workout in. If time permits, maybe a noon workout is just the break you need. Many enjoy the benefits of exercise after work to get rid of all the stresses built up throughout the day. Whatever time works best for you, get in the routine of working out at that same time every day if possible.
The environment you choose to train in is very important. For example, if work causes your stress, the corporate gym probably isn't the best place for you to reduce stress. The idea is to get away from what's causing the stress in the first place. Training in a natural environment has proven to provide additional stress relieving benefits. Obviously it is more relaxing to walk along a nature trail than to walk along a busy street. Also, exposure to the sun has positive effects on mood – another stress buster and benefit of exercising outdoors.
Rule #4- Take Hourly Exercise Related "Time Outs"
It may be a long time between workouts and unfortunately your stress levels aren't taking any time off. To keep the stress at bay until your next workout, find time for exercise related "time outs". You may not have the time to workout, but you can take 2-3 minutes every hour to stretch. Stretching has been shown to stimulate receptors in the nervous system that decrease the production of stress hormones. You may be so stressed that you tighten your muscles without even realizing it. This state of contraction causes tension in the muscle which can often be eliminated with simple stretching exercises. For some great stretches you can do right from your office chair, review my video from week 13. You may find it even more relaxing to stretch and meditate on your favorite Bible verses at the same time. If you don't know what Bible verses to meditate on, here a great one to start with:
Don't worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done.
Philippians 4:6 (NLT)