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Does exercise really reduce stress?

Dear Alice,

Does exercise really reduce stress? I recently took a new job that is very high stress, and I need a release. My friend says I should take up mountain biking, that it will reduce my stress (and keep me from gaining weight at this desk job). Thanks for the great site.

Dear Reader, 

A high-impact yes to your question; exercise can be a great way to relieve stress! Not only has exercise been proven to give you an endorphin boost and help you shake off those stress symptoms, it can also improve your mood overall. As your friend mentioned, mountain biking can be a type of exercise you choose to indulge in for both stress relief and exercise. However, while this may be your friend’s preferred source of exercise, you may choose to try it and find you don’t enjoy it as much. Luckily, there are many different ways to incorporate exercise into your lifestyle that can be done individually or with a friend, so read on for more information! 

Before you bolt in the other direction, reviewing the basics can be a great way to start your exercise journey. According to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, physical activity can be defined as anything that gets your body moving around. In general, adults (ages 18 to 64) are recommended to get 150 minutes of moderate physical activity a week or 30 minutes of physical activity per day. Moderate physical activity can include brisk walking, while vigorous activity would involve activities like jogging or running. Other workouts you may consider checking out include high-intensity interval training (HIIT), boxing, yoga, tai chi, hiking, swimming, and more. If you have limited mobility or a chronic condition that affects your ability to perform these activities, consider checking out activities like water aerobics, yoga, or seated workouts, like hand cycling and chair exercises instead. 

Starting an exercise routine can be difficult, but the benefits are limitless. Exercise can improve physical appearance, enhance self-esteem and self-confidence, and offer other perks related to mental health. Those who regularly exercise also report having more energy and a better ability to concentrate. Don’t forget about improved quality of sleep, reduced stress reactivity, and maybe even a slowed aging process! Ready to dive in but don’t know where to start? Here are some tips you might consider when starting and sticking to an exercise routine: 

  • Begin slowly. If you aren’t accustomed to exercising, it might be helpful to start out with 10 to 15 minutes twice a week and build up from there. That way, it allows you to incorporate movement into your life more gradually, leading to more long-term, sustained habits. 
  • Snag a workout partner. As you mentioned, mountain biking with your friend may be a great, motivating way for you to exercise and socialize at the same time. However, if mountain biking isn’t your thing, perhaps you could introduce your friend to other exercises that the two of you can do together or take turns deciding what activity you’d both like to do. 
  • Schedule your workout sessions. Setting aside time in your calendar may help keep your workout sessions on track and consistent. 
  • Research exercises or gym equipment. Having some idea of what exercises you’d like to do beforehand could help you create an exercise routine you enjoy. If you choose to go to the gym, understanding how to use the gym equipment can reduce gym anxiety, improve the overall quality of your workout, and minimize injuries. 

If you don’t find any of the exercising options appealing, you may also want to check out non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). NEAT refers to the energy we use during activities that aren’t sleeping, eating, or deliberate exercise. These may be more attainable, smaller shifts towards adding movement into your day. Here are some helpful tips on how you might choose to incorporate the idea of NEAT into your daily routine: 

  • Standing up more. If you find yourself sitting for long periods, you may choose to stand or move around more often in five to ten-minute increments. Another consideration is also using a standing desk or a stability ball to encourage this behavior. 
  • Getting more steps in. If you can, incorporating more walking into your daily routine can also be considered a NEAT exercise. This could include pacing while talking on the phone, opting for the stairs, or walking over to a co-worker's desk instead of messaging them. 
  • Trying out different methods of transportation. If possible, walking or biking to work can be a great way to get that heart pumping. If you’re taking public transportation, you may also choose to stand instead of sitting or get off at an earlier stop to walk the rest of the way. 
  • Making it fun. Playing fitness video games, dancing, or playing an instrument can all be fun, unique ways to spend that energy! 

Before making any dietary or exercise changes, consider speaking with a health care provider to ensure your exercise plans are safe and suitable for your health needs. For additional information on physical fitness and overall health, consider checking out other questions like yours in the Go Ask Alice! Nutrition and Physical Activity archives. 

Good luck releasing that stress! 

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Last updated Nov 17, 2023
Originally published Mar 01, 1996