Fitting in shopping while prepping for the holidays? Juggling family and financial obligations? Overwhelmed by parties with too much food and alcohol? There are good reasons that the holidays can skyrocket your stress level. If you’re looking for ways to relieve that holiday stress, exercise will help.
Exercise is one of the most powerful stress relievers and anti-depressants available, with effects that are both more immediate and longer lasting than medication. Here’s everything you need to know about using exercise to reduce stress this holiday season.
Does exercise really reduce your stress level?
The great news is that exercise definitely reduces stress. It does so in multiple ways. Because exercise has many ways of improving the way we respond to stress, it is actually more effective than quick fixes, like medication (and alcohol) or even scheduled down-time (such as a hot bath or spa day). Even small amounts of exercise make our bodies and brains respond better to daily stress.
How does exercise improve stress levels?
- Exercise improves circulation. From lifting weights to running, exercise increases blood flow (and oxygen) in both your body and your brain. This circulation means better healing, better cardiovascular health, and clearer thinking.
- Exercise improves the way you see things. Negative thoughts we have about our lives tend to feed our anxious or depressed state. Research shows that these automatic thoughts and dysfunctional assumptions decrease with exercise. Next time you find yourself spinning over a family disagreement, try heading out for a run or walk to get a bit of head space.
- Exercise improves your sleep. Have you ever noticed how children sleep even worse when they ‘re overtired? Turns out we’re the same way. High levels of cortisol associated with stress tend to disrupt our sleep, making it more difficult to fall and to stay asleep. Reducing cortisol may be just one of the ways that exercise improves our sleep. One thing is certain, the good night’s sleep you get from regular workouts will make it a lot easier to deal with stress this Christmas.
- Exercise improves your brain chemistry. Exercise’s improvements on your brain chemistry range from immediate to long lasting. Increases in endorphins and dopamine will improve your mood immediately. Longer lasting improvements include boosting brain serotonin. This may make you more likely to stick to your workouts, as well as keeping stress and anxiety under control. Maybe this is why exercise seems to be even better at controlling depression long term than medication.
- Exercise improves your ability to adapt. An adapting brain and body is a young brain and body. The great news is, exercise increases the ability of your brain to adapt and respond to stress. It does this by increasing Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF). That’s big news because BDNF is vital to the to the survival, growth, and maintenance of neurons in brain circuits involved in emotional and cognitive function. Brains that are high in BDNF are actually less vulnerable to the maladaptive reactions to stress in the first place!
- Exercise improves your self-confidence and feelings of control. One of the worst things about stress is feeling like you are powerless. A regular exercise program not only makes you feel better about yourself, it makes you feel like you have more control over what happens and how you respond to it. This can come from meeting personal performance goals and from focusing on the movements of your body during your workout. Knowing that you meet challenges regularly during your workouts is a great preparation for tough days over the holidays.
What is a good exercise program to reduce stress?
While there are plenty of benefits to exercising frequently, even short exercise sessions are helpful in controlling holiday stress. As little as thirty minutes of exercise, three days a week is demonstrated to improve stress levels in even the most vulnerable populations.
You can even split your thirty minutes into ten minute sessions throughout the day. Rhythmic aerobic exercise (walking, running, and cycling all fit this) may be especially helpful three times per week.
Adding strength training in to your aerobic program will also help you manage your stress level. Most people find that it improves their confidence, body image, and feelings of control. You may also find that it makes you less likely to overindulge on holiday treats.
The best news about reducing stress through exercise is that it is attainable for any fitness level. Choose an activity that you enjoy or that fits well into your day. Start by adding in 30 minutes three times a week, even if you need to break that into ten minute segments. Notice how much better you feel as you finally settle in for some Holiday comfort and joy.