Reduce Stress Now: Sweat For Your Supper

This post by Jan Bruce, CEO and co-founder of meQuilibrium, first appeared on

In our recent survey of US employees “What Does Stress Look Like to You?” more than 40% of respondents said that they wished they exercised more to reduce stress. Yet nearly 80% also said that when stressed, they take refuge in bed, or head for the fridge.

Exercise is of course one of the best ways to boost stamina and energy—plus, clear your head and gain control of the negative effects of stress. (Read more on the many benefits of getting your body moving.) You know you can’t continue to drive a car without stopping regularly to fill the tank.  And yet you expect that of yourself, far too many times.

If you’re one of the many who long to make movement your go-to stress relief, but are having a hard time implementing your excellent intentions, I have something for you to try. Even better, it’s not a program or a protocol. It’s a fun, rewarding way to spend some downtime this summer, and it can turn into a habit—or, as in my case, even an addictive game.

Swim for Your Supper

A few summers ago, my family started a new game during our annual vacation—a twist on an old Rodgers and Hart song called “Sing for Your Supper.” In our case,  we made it a goal to swim, cycle, run, exercise, play some tennis or other fun sport for the privilege of delicious family meals.

I was inspired to create this game when I noticed that my husband was regularly riding his bicycle for 60-90 minutes most mornings and  swimming nearly a mile each afternoon, and then happily playing tennis late in the day.  I love a little competition, so I added a bike ride to my regular daily morning runs and tennis games, and even occasionally joined him on his swim. Soon I noticed that I was sometimes doing up to four ‘units’ of sports and exercise some days. It was a revelation to me how much more activity was possible and pleasurable during a single day.  And how much better I slept each night.

Then the gamification kicked in: Our family of four started plotting each day what each of us would do to add at least two types of fun sport or exercise. The whole process was entirely optional but catchy and fulfilling, not a chore; and it had the built-in reward of causing us to look forward to eating well at lunch and dinner.

Here are the rules:

  1. One 30-minute period of exercise equals one unit.
  2. One unit equals one meal. For example, if you play tennis for 30 minutes, you’ve earned one of that day’s meals.
  3. One meal of the day is free, no units needed.
  4. If you do more than three units of activity – have an ice cream cone, because after all, you’re on vacation!

(If you have young children, you’ll need to adapt the game a bit. Try using snacks as the “prize” instead of meals, go with shorter units of exercise, and incorporate games like badminton or Marco Polo. It’s worth the effort to introduce exercise as a daily pleasure early in their lives.)

You might think, wait a minute, this a vacation. What happened to relaxing with a great book? Lying on the beach? We still had reading and beach time but we were broadening our efforts to include physical fitness – both in regular exercise and sports.  As a result, we were far more relaxed, engaged with each other, and enjoying our vacation because we were more active. (Hammock time with a book is that much better after a run.) We were sleeping better and making healthier food choices, since chips and cookies would weigh down our afternoon swim. The whole experience was a blast, and became a tradition.

 When You’re Not on Vacation

Now, when you’re putting in full work days, you can’t swim, run, bike, and backhand your way through the day, but you can rejigger the game to fit your life. Take the stairs four out of five mornings? You get to buy flowers for your desk. Walk the dog for a half-hour after supper for a week? You get to plan the next date night with your spouse (and your spouse will find the babysitter!).

We’re in the sweet spot of the season, when exercise can be as simple as a walk around the block or a game of badminton on the lawn. Make responding to stress with a little sweat your go-to solution this summer—and you’ll be in a far better position to cope with what comes your way.