7 physical activities to reduce stress (and 7 to avoid!)

Published 18 April, 2024

Stress is a common issue that can have a significant impact on our physical and mental well-being. Physical activity is one of the most effective ways to reduce stress and improve overall health. In this article, we’ll outline some recommendations for physical activity that can help reduce stress, as well as activities to avoid that might make your stress worse.

Recommendations for physical activity to help reduce stress

Aerobic exercise

Aerobic exercise is any activity that increases your heart rate and breathing, such as jogging and cycling. These exercises can improve your cardiovascular fitness, enhance blood circulation, and help release endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. Endorphins are neurotransmitters that improve your mood, reduce stress, and help regulate your appetite. Aim for 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, most days of the week.

Yoga and Tai Chi

Yoga and Tai Chi are both mind-body practices that can help reduce stress and promote relaxation. They are gentle exercises that combine physical movements, breathing techniques, and meditation to improve your mental and physical health. Yoga involves a series of poses, stretches, and breathing exercises that can help improve your flexibility, balance, and strength. Tai Chi is a low-impact exercise that involves slow, graceful movements and deep breathing techniques. Both practices have been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, improve mood, and increase energy levels. Practicing yoga or Tai Chi for 20-30 minutes a day can help reduce stress and improve overall well-being.

Strength training

Strength training involves using weights or resistance bands to build muscle strength and endurance. It can help improve your bone density, increase your metabolism, and improve your overall fitness level. Strength training also helps release endorphins, which can improve mood and reduce stress and anxiety levels. Aim to do strength training exercises at least twice a week, focusing on major muscle groups such as the legs, arms, and back. Examples of strength training exercises include squats, lunges, push-ups, and bicep curls. Aim for strength training exercises at least twice a week, focusing on major muscle groups such as the legs, arms, and back.

Mindful walking

Mindful walking is a simple but effective way to reduce stress and improve mood. It is a form of meditation that involves walking slowly and mindfully, while focusing on your breathing and your surroundings. This practice can help reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, improve mood, and increase your overall sense of well-being. Aim to walk for at least 10-15 minutes a day in a quiet, peaceful environment. Focus on your breathing, the sensation of your feet touching the ground, and the sights and sounds around you. Mindful walking can be done indoors or outdoors and can be done alone or with a partner.

Walking or hiking

Walking or hiking is a simple and accessible activity that can be done almost anywhere. It’s a great way to get outside, enjoy nature, and reduce stress. Walking or hiking can be done alone or with friends and family, making it a great social activity as well. Regular walking or hiking has been found to improve cardiovascular health, reduce the risk of chronic diseases, and improve overall mood.

Swimming

Swimming is a low-impact exercise that can be done at any age and fitness level. It’s a great option for people who want to improve their cardiovascular fitness while reducing stress. Swimming can be done in a pool, lake, or ocean, and there are many different strokes and styles to choose from. Swimming has been found to improve cardiovascular health, reduce stress and anxiety, and improve overall mood.

Dance

Dancing is a fun and energetic activity that can help reduce stress and improve overall well-being. It can be done alone or in a group setting and there are many different types of dance styles to choose from, such as ballet, jazz, hip hop, or salsa. Dancing has been found to improve cardiovascular health, reduce stress and anxiety, and improve overall mood.

Activities to avoid that might make your stress worse

High-intensity exercise

While moderate-intensity aerobic exercise can help reduce stress, high-intensity exercise can actually increase stress levels, as your cortisol levels (a stress hormone) can be elevated while taking part in this type of activity. High-intensity exercise puts a lot of strain on the body, and if done too often or without proper rest and recovery, it can lead to burnout and increased stress levels. If you are feeling stressed, it is best to stick to moderate-intensity exercise.

Competitive sports

While sports can be a great way to relieve stress, competitive sports can sometimes have the opposite effect. The pressure to win and perform can increase stress levels and lead to feelings of anxiety and frustration. If you are feeling stressed, it is best to stick to non-competitive forms of physical activity.

Exercise that you don’t enjoy

While it is important to find a form of physical activity that you enjoy, it is also important to avoid activities that you don’t enjoy. If you force yourself to do an activity that you don’t enjoy, you are likely to feel more stressed and less motivated. Instead, try different activities until you find one that you enjoy and that fits your personality and lifestyle.

Overtraining

Pushing yourself too hard and not allowing enough time for recovery can increase stress levels and lead to burnout. Overtraining can cause physical and emotional stress, including a weakened immune system, increased risk of injury, and decreased motivation. It’s important to listen to your body and give yourself enough rest and recovery time. Make sure to vary your workouts, focus on proper form and technique, and allow for rest days to avoid overtraining.

Exercise that is too challenging

While it’s good to challenge yourself, doing exercise that is too difficult can increase stress levels and lead to feelings of frustration and failure. It’s important to find a level of difficulty that is challenging but still achievable. If you’re new to exercise, start with lower intensity activities like walking or cycling and gradually increase the intensity and duration of your workouts. If you’re trying a new activity, start with a beginner’s class or seek guidance from an exercise professional to ensure that you’re using proper form and technique.

Exercising in a crowded or noisy environment

Exercising in an environment that is overcrowded or noisy can increase stress levels and make it difficult to focus on your workout. This can lead to feelings of anxiety, frustration, and even embarrassment. If possible, try to find a quieter or more secluded area to exercise. If you’re working out at a gym, try to go during off-peak hours when it’s less crowded. Alternatively, consider working out at home or outside in nature where it’s quieter and less stressful.

Activities that are too repetitive

Doing the same activity over and over again can be boring and lead to burnout. It’s important to mix up your workouts and try new activities to keep things interesting and challenging. This can help prevent boredom and make your workouts more enjoyable. Try new activities like swimming, hiking, dancing, or rock climbing. Varying your workouts can also help prevent plateaus in your fitness levels and keep you motivated to reach your goals.

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