As Elle Woods once wisely said, “Exercise gives you endorphins, endorphins make you happy, and happy people just don’t shoot their husbands.” Less dramatic translation? Working out is great for relieving stress. Whether you’re going for a walk around the block or doing 50 burpees in a row at the hands of an intense bootcamp instructor, movement of any kind really does help you to chill out and boost your mood. A 2013 study called the beneficial effects of exercise to be “indisputable,” which I can confirm to be true. Certain types of physical activity help to raise your serotonin levels, which, in turn, boosts your mood. So, see? Exercise really does make you happy.
Yet, as those of us living as part of the burnout generation know too well, not all types of stress are created equal. There’s the general stress you feel on a daily basis when you’re being run down at work, there’s frustration, which can make you want to throw a punch or two, and then, of course, there’s that “nervous energy” you feel ahead of a big event that makes you sweat through your shirt. No matter what kind of stress you’re experiencing, exercise can help—and to maximize your time, I’ve rounded up the best workouts for every type of stress.
For ongoing stress: Assisted stretching
If your life has got you in a constant stress cycle (work! chores! relationships! adulting!), relieving some of the tension in your body can help with the tension in your brain. The best solution? Get someone—ideally a professional—to help you stretch it out. “Assisted stretching is more helpful for stress relief than stretching on your own because you can achieve a deeper range of motion, which will help release tension in tight muscles that aren’t as easily stretched by oneself,” says Austin Martinez, director of education for StretchLab. A few stretches he swears by for stress release:
1. Neck tilt: If you sit at a desk all day, you’ve likely got some tension around your neck and shoulders. “The neck tilt can loosen the muscles on the side of your neck to help with breathing and comfort,” says Martinez. To try it for yourself, sit down with your back straight and breathe deeply into your belly, tilting your left ear toward your left shoulder, and hold. Repeat on the right side.
2. Rotational stretch: Stress tends to make you raise your shoulders toward your ears, which isn’t good. To release the tension, take your nose and rotate it towards your left shoulder while pulling down lightly on your head. This should cause you to feel a stretch on your backside. Hold for a few seconds, then repeat on the other side.
3. Child’s pose: “Sitting all day at work lets our hips tuck in, putting stress on our lower back,” says Martinez. “Hips need to be taken care of because if unbalanced, they can result in chronic back issues.” For a counterbalance, stretch out your hip flexors with a child’s pose to open your hips and reduce tension, resulting in a looser back.
For excitement: Dance cardio
There’s a reason why Meredith Grey and Christina Yang swear by “dancing it out” as a way to solve their problems: Because it really helps you feel better. “Aerobic activity helps to deepen your breathing, allowing your body to increase oxygen transport and relieve muscle tension,” says Jonathan Tylicki, director of education for AKT. “The brain power necessary for dance cardio, specifically, requires you focus on both the continuous changing of movement and recalling of moves and patterns. This mental challenge allows you to detachment from those worries, more than running on a treadmill or cycling. You can truly turn your mental focus to what you are doing in that moment.” For what it’s worth, there’s even science to back this one up. A 2007 study found that hip hop dancing lowered stress while also improving energy and mood. So, better blast that Ciara and get moving.
For frustration: Yoga
When your stress levels are making you feel like punching something, your first response may be to head to a boxing class to beat the crap out of a stranger. But actually, you may be better served by hitting the mat and stretching it out, instead. “A yoga practice that focuses on gratitude can help deal with anger,” says Kelly Turner, Director of Education for YogaSix and Experienced Registered Yoga Teacher. “Repeating a simple mantra to say during postures can be a great technique to combat anger and promote love and peace. Start by reciting to yourself a simple wish of love and peace, then repeat that out for yourself, someone in your life, and finally the greater society.” Some of her favorite stress-beating poses? A lateral side body stretch to open muscles and make it easier to breathe, camel pose, fish pose and wild thing to open the space around your heart, and savasana, which will help you slow down.
For when you need to get it all out: HIIT
“These workouts require short bursts of energy and quick breaks. Matching internal feelings with external actions may help center and align the body,” says Courtney Johnson, a certified personal trainer and lead coach for Row House. “Excess post-exercise oxygen consumption and the release of serotonin can boost your energy and positive emotions.” Just be sure to limit these types of workouts to twice a week to give your body enough time to recover.
For feeling bummed: Rowing or resistance training
You know when the stress you’re experiencing makes you kind of sad? Well, you need a workout that’s going to help totally get your mind off of it. And according to Johnson, the best way to do that is with something intense—like rowing or lifting heavy weights. “It reminds us how strong we are. Even when we’re down, we can pick ourselves back up,” says Johnson. “Rowing engages 85 percent of the body’s muscles. It also strengthens the core, eliminates muscle imbalances and improves posture, literally allowing you to pick your head up and stand a little taller.”
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