How many articles have you read touting exercise as the antidote to stress? A billion? You know that exercise is perhaps your most potent tool for calming the frazzled psyche and caring for the body. But you resist it.
I know why: It’s that old catch-22 of exercise and stress: When you’re stressed out is when you need exercise the most—and it’s also when you’re least likely to do it. It becomes just too hard to get out the door, to get past the insane obstacle course that is your life in order to get to: the track, the gym, the yoga class, the pool, or wherever else you like to do it. It seems like maybe it’s not worth it…and may even seem a bit self-indulgent. These thoughts are not your friends—because they’re keeping you from a potent source of energy and calm, and helping you cope with stress overall.
Rather than engage in the struggle of “should I or shouldn’t I work out,” ask yourself how you want to feel. More energized? More rested? More at ease in your own skin? Would you like to sleep better? To get out of your head and into the moment? You’d be hard pressed to find a desirable effect that exercise can’t help you achieve. And I’m not talking about one magical kind of exercise–but anything that gets you moving.
My colleague Adam Perlman, M.D., agrees. “If you want to feel better now and live longer overall, you have got to make exercise part of your regimen,” he says. “Don’t judge it, don’t overthink it. Just do it and do it regularly.”
Here are three ways to get honest about how stress sabotages your exercise routine, and three tips to help you find your fitness groove every day.
Stress Obstacle #1: I’m way too stressed to exercise today.
I can’t think of one person who hasn’t faced this negative thought at some point in their fitness journey, and that includes more than one personal trainer. In fact, the American Psychological Association reports that 39 percent of adults say they have skipped exercise or physical activity in the past month when they were feeling stressed. And in a recent meQuilibrium survey, we found that only eight percent of respondents turn to exercise when stressed.
>>Try this: Make stress relief a deliberate part of your workout.
I love this advice from Shape.com because it makes exercise a more holistic, and more useful, body and mind experience. After you’ve done your squats or lunges, try five minutes of deep breathing. Or, pay close attention to your body as you move it—the muscles stretching and contracting, your lungs expanding, energy moving through you. The exercise becomes a kind of moving meditation, which, as we’ve written about before, is a stress relief technique.
Stress Obstacle #2: I’m going to work out harder than usual because I’m so stressed.
A ten mile run (uphill both ways) should erase the stress of a hard day at work, right? The truth is, if you’re not mentally present for the challenges of demanding exercise, you are more likely to injure yourself. And you’ll be more depleted afterwards, not less.
>>Try this: Make low-impact workouts part of your repertoire.
When you’re not in peak physical or mental form, go for the lighter moves to help your body and mind recover—and still get the benefits of exercise. This is a great time to try yoga, especially classes that focus on gentle poses, deep relaxation, and meditation. A 30-minute cycling class might be perfect, or some laps at the local pool. You can also get yourself outside for a walk or jog through a park, a gentle cross-country ski, or even a round of golf. (Check out these suggestions from Greatist for low-impact workouts.)
Stress Obstacle #3: I’m bored with my exercise routine.
A runner I know told me that she prefers going up hills rather than coasting on long, flat stretches. She works harder, and has more fun, when facing the stress of the vertical. In other words, if you don’t push yourself enough, you’ll stop exercising when your mind and body can’t find a way to grow. Even if you don’t stop, your fitness and weight-loss progress will plateau without variety in your movements.
>>Try this: Find your sweet spot.
My favorite stress and exercise mantra? Find your sweet spot, that state between ambition and anxiety in which you can function at an optimal performance without being overwhelmed. Can you speed up the treadmill for 10 minutes? Can you add jump rope to the end of your routine for a blast of cardio? Can you reverse your route so you go up the big hill instead of down?
The great thing about getting truthful about your fitness needs and finding your exercise/stress sweet spot is that it gets more interesting and rewarding as you get stronger and more confident. It’s as if one success feeds another until you’re on top of the world (like these two ordinary women in their fifties who have climbed all the highest peaks in New England).
Bottom line: The benefits of movement far outweigh straight-up calorie burn. Especially the moment you walk back in the door, knowing you faced untold other temptations (on Netflix alone) and a boatload of inertia and did it. There’s no telling what you might do next.
Learn more useful information about stress and your health! Pre-order our forthcoming book, meQuilibrium: 14 Days to Cooler, Calmer, and Happier, co-authored by meQuilibrium CEO Jan Bruce, Adam Perlman, M.D., Chief Medical Officer, and Andrew Shatté, Ph.D., Chief Science Officer.