4 Best Exercises for Stress Relief

Do stressful days have you reaching for a pint of ice cream? If so, you’re giving your body a double whammy of bad. Start exercising instead; it’s a powerful stress reliever. Here are workouts to tame that tension. Plus, do you know the symptoms of stress? Take our quiz to find out…

Stress isn’t just a mental or emotional issue – it can physically hurt too.

Chronic tension can be the culprit behind both long-term conditions (depression, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure) and everyday health woes (headaches, back pain, insomnia, upset stomach, anxiety, anger).

Stress isn’t gender-neutral either.

Research shows that women experience it more acutely than men and we’re more susceptible to the physiological effects of chronic stress.

But crashing on your sofa isn’t the answer. Sweat it out instead.

“The human body isn’t designed to sit all day,” says Jeff Migdow, M.D., an integrative physician in Lenox, Mass.

Just getting up and moving around is a powerful way to reduce stress, he says. “It allows our muscles to move, encourages blood to flow and helps us feel more like ourselves.”

Exercise also gets us breathing deeper, which triggers the body’s relaxation response.

But some exercises are more helpful than others when it comes to stress reduction.

“Running on a treadmill while watching TV really doesn’t cut it,” Migdow says. “Instead, pursue activities that encourage the mind and the body to work together.”

Here are 9 stress-busting ways to exercise:

1. Yoga

Why it works to reduce stress: Yoga postures are a form of strength training, making you more resilient and flexible, which in turn relieves physical tension. It also uses deep breathing, which triggers the body’s relaxation response.

Studies have shown that yoga reduces blood pressure too.

But perhaps yoga’s biggest benefit is the mental focus it promotes. Focus is key to stress management.

Poses require concentration, “which keeps your mind focused on what you’re doing instead of analyzing, planning and worrying,” says Noel Shroeder, a Boston-based yoga teacher and creator of the Notice Your Experience DVD (yinward.com).

How to do it: Yoga classes that appeal to all ages, temperaments and fitness levels abound at gyms, studios and community colleges.

Some classes, such as hatha, are gentler and focus primarily on stress reduction, while others – ashtanga, vinyasa, power, Bikram – are more athletic.

You can also practice yoga on your own at home.

Two good DVDs for beginners are Shiva Rea: Flow Yoga for Beginners and Element: AM and PM Yoga for Beginners With Elena Brower.

For a complete overview, visit our Yoga Get Fit Guide.

2. Tai Chi

Why it works to reduce stress: Derived from an ancient Chinese martial art, tai chi (also known as tai chi chuan) links physical movement to the breath.

Often called “meditation in motion,” tai chi promotes a focus on the present – a mental absorption in which everyday worries fall away.

Tai chi also increases flexibility and boosts energy, which result in an improved sense of well-being.

Other benefits include better balance, more restful sleep and increased cardiovascular fitness.

How to do it:Tai chi is comprised of more than 100 gentle, fluid movements that are linked with each other and your breath; unlike yoga, there are no pauses between the poses. Like yoga, there are several styles of tai chi that range in intensity.

Many senior centers, wellness centers and community colleges offer classes. To get started at home, try the DVD Step by Step Tai Chi With Tiffany Chen.

3. Qigong

Why it works to reduce stress:Similar to tai chi, qigong is considered one of the cornerstones of Chinese medicine, along with acupuncture and herbs.

Practicing qigong regularly can promote feelings of serenity, improve sleep and digestion, and increase energy.

Like tai chi, qigong helps you be more present in your body, Migdow says.

“Its slow gentle movements and focus on moving in harmony with the breath are extremely relaxing to the nervous system,” he says.

How to do it:Qigong is offered at many senior centers, community centers and YMCAs.

At home, try The Essential Qigong Training Courseby Kenneth Cohen or the DVD Qi Gong Fire and Water With Matthew Cohen.

4. Walking

Why it works to reduce stress:It’s easy to do and requires no classes or special equipment.

Walking frequently can reduce the incidence of many of the stress-related conditions, including cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes.

People with regular walking regimens also report reduced stress levels and a self-confidence that comes from taking an active role in their well-being.

“Walking releases tension from the major muscle groups, deepens the breathing and quiets the nervous system,” Migdow says. “It also gets us out into nature, which is relaxing.”

How to do it:If you’re just getting started on walking for exercise, aim for two 10-minute walks a week.

After two or three weeks, gradually increase the frequency and duration of your walks.

Five or six 30-minute walks a week are usually recommended to maintain health and stress management.

To lose weight, you’ll have to make those walks longer when you have time (say, 90 minutes on Sundays) and/or more intense (take a hilly route or ramp up speed). Your breath should be heavy but not labored.