Exercise is one of the most potent stress-reducers on the planet—and yet, in the irony of ironies, it’s the one thing far too many of us don’t make time for. There are lots of reasons why (and I’m sure you have come up with a few creative ones yourself), but the fact is the idea of working out can create enough stress that you skip it—and miss out on a boatload of mind and body benefits.
The recent APA Stress in American Survey found that 62 percent of adults who exercise to help manage stress found it extremely effective. However, the survey also reported that it remains a challenge for many:
- 39 percent of respondents said they skipped exercise in the past month when they were feeling stressed;
- Only 17 percent of adults reported exercising on a daily basis;
- More than a third of adults report exercising less than once a week, if at all.
You don’t need statistics to tell you that the benefits of exercise are real—whether it takes place in a fancy gym, a small studio, or your basement. Vigorous physical activity helps you breathe out stress, re-energize, and produce feel-good endorphins. It chemically combats the effects of stress in our brains, which stands to reason since our bodies were designed to move fluidly and frequently and not sit in a chair upwards of eight hours a day, which is the reality for most of us. Exercise can even be fun and help us loosen up—I know I couldn’t cope without my regular long walks.
Why You Have FOWO: Fear of Working Out
But as anyone who’s ever tried a new workout routine knows, even our best-laid fitness plans can give rise to undue stress, especially when we’re intimidated by them.
Walking into a yoga studio, especially if you’ve never been in one, can be stressful. You might berate yourself for not being limber enough or for being out of shape, and then start dreading exercise. But this has more to do with your lack of self compassion than fitness itself. And if you’re trying to lose weight, you probably heap judgment on yourself if the scale isn’t dipping fast enough. Just like that, there go your happy brain chemicals!
Not to mention that finding time for fitness can be stressful. Time and energy are finite and many of us are burning right through ours just managing the daily grind. Forcing a sweat session when you’re bone-deep tired at the end of a hard day, or overbooking yourself and sacrificing dinners with your family to fit it in, scream anxiety and stress. I can almost feel my shoulders tensing up.
That said, the mental health benefits are as critical as the physical ones, and well worth the effort. In fact, exercise was recently designated an appropriate treatment for major depression, with new research showing that an aerobic routine can lessen depressive symptoms in as little as four weeks.
So what’s the point at which your efforts to stay active become counterproductive? If they’re stressing you out, are you really gaining? I asked Adam Perlman, M.D., an integrative physician and one of the founders of meQuilibrium who is a big fan of fitness, for his take on the issue. He emphasizes the importance of setting realistic fitness goals so that the benefits of your routine outweigh any of its attendant stress.
“At lot of stress can come from setting a goal and not living up to it,” says Adam. “What I tell my patients is that they need to set the right goals for where they are. If you don’t have a lot of experience running, for instance, a short term goal could be joining a gym and getting there three days a week, and then building up from there.”
The worst thing that could happen, he adds, is that you start an overzealous routine, throw in the towel completely and lose your opportunity to improve your overall fitness, which has a huge impact on your quality of life.
But then there’s this: People who don’t engage in strength training activity actually begin to lose muscle mass, making them less able to move through the world with agility and even do simple activities like load the car with groceries, putting them at risk of injury and falls.
“Imagine how stressful it would be to see your physical capability decline,” Adam says.
It’s well established that a routine with a balance of aerobic, stretching, and strengthening activity is ideal to keep you healthy in mind and body. Back when I was publisher of Body+Soul (Whole Living) magazine, one of our favorite fitness experts was Ellen Barrett, a woman who put Pilates on the map. While Ellen agrees with this rule of thumb, she also encourages her clients to measure a great workout from within—because if you hate your routine, you won’t do it.
“Ask yourself how you feel after a workout,” says Ellen. “You want to feel invigorated, not irritated. Like you have more energy post-workout than when you started. Feeling depleted means the workout was too long or too intense, or simply wrong for you.”
Here’s some ways to make fitness a little less stressful as you ramp up for summer.
1. Zap the negative thoughts. If you think you’ll never be able to do a perfect plank, run a marathon, do a graceful downward dog, or whatever it is that you aspire to fitness-wise, well, the fact is you won’t. Our own thinking traps stop us in our tracks before we have a fair shot at succeeding at something. (Read more about how our thoughts create our reality.) Don’t put artificial limits on your potential. Remember that you can build up to just about anything as long as your legs work!
2. Find something you truly enjoy. I personally love long, brisk walks, and yoga (when I can fit it in!). Hate yoga? Don’t do yoga! Ellen cautions that when exercise is just another thing to check off your to-do list, it adds to your stress levels. “You’ve got to see exercise as a retreat from your stresses, or as an escape or remedy,” she says. There are so many ways to get moving, so explore them, and have fun in the process.
3. Know your workout time-zone. The time of day that you choose to workout will influence whether it sticks. “Are you not a morning person? Then don’t force yourself to go to a 6 a.m. spin class,” Ellen says. Adam adds that finding your right time of day can be hard initially, especially as you balance other priorities, but it’s ultimately stress-relieving to know what will work for you long-term. “I used to work out in the evenings, and I had to shift that when my kids were born,” he says. “Now, I exercise before work—and it’s as normal a part of my day as eating lunch.”
4. Take your routine outside. Most people find that being outside in any natural environment relaxes and refreshes them. Feeling a cool breeze or the sun on your cheeks during your workout can instantly give you a mental boost. “Go to the park, take a hike, play tennis on your local high school’s courts, or instead of running on a treadmill, run around your neighborhood,” Ellen says. And don’t forget to take the time to soak in your surroundings and maybe even stop at some point along your run to smell the roses—bringing yourself back to the present is the best antidote to stress around.