Reduce Stress with Exercise
by Susan E. Bennett, PHD x 320

Lately, there has been an increased awareness of the benefits of exercise. Several studies show that your workout will not only help improve your strength, endurance, and resistance to illness, but will also decrease stress (Claudine Chamberlain,, June 2001). A recent study at Duke University indicated exercise may not only alleviate stress but can reduce the symptoms of clinical depression as well (James Blumenthal, Archives of Internal Medicine, Oct. 25, 2000). In this 4-month study, 60% of people who engaged in aerobic activity (a brisk walk) three times a week for 30 minutes recovered from depressive symptoms without the use of antidepressant medication.

Aerobic activity may also burn off anxiety created by our natural "fight or flight" response (David Posen, M.D. Canadian Journal of Continuing Medical Education, April 1995). This primitive response may be set off by incidents during the day such as a traffic jam or a fight with a spouse or co-worker. There is some evidence that exercise may release endorphins which are the body's natural painkillers. These neurochemicals appear to produce feelings of well-being. Lastly, lifting weights can lead to increased self-esteem and feelings of accomplishment which will also help fight against depression (Tkachuk & Martin, Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, June 2000).

Many people are already aware of the physical benefits of exercise but have a hard time maintaining a routine. Here are some helpful tips to improve consistency in your workout schedule.

1. Start with small steps. Don't do too much, too fast. This can be overwhelming and possibly lead to an injury. Take a walk around the block and slowly add distance and/or speed. Also, be sure to consult with your physician before beginning an exercise regimen.

2. Form clear goals. You will be much more likely to follow through if you have a specific activity planned for a set time and day. Psychology professor James Rosen states that exercising at the same time each day will create "habit strength" which will make the routine easier to maintain (The Walking Magazine, November/December 2000).

3. Record your progress.  A visual cue on a posted calendar can be a rewarding reminder of your accomplishment and a motivator to continue.

4. Reward your consistency rather than the difficulty of the exercise.  You will have different levels of energy on different days. You will be more likely to follow through in the long-term if you do some activity regularly rather than always shooting for a set amount of activity.

5. Do it for you.  People (especially women) often exercise in an attempt to change their bodies to meet others' expectations. Concentrate on feeling strong and healthy for you rather than on others' wishes.

6. Find a workout partner or support person.  Ideally, it is best to exercise with a partner. In fact, some believe the social aspect of exercise is an important contributant to stress reduction (James Blumenthal, Archives of Internal Medicine, Oct. 25, 2000). In addition, a partner or group will increase your accountability. Therefore, exercise classes or walking groups are excellent choices. If you prefer to exercise alone, ask a friend to help support your success and put your feet to the fire when you slack off.

7. Hang in there until exercise becomes more rewarding.  James Rosen also suggests that it may take two weeks to four months for exercise to become a comfortable habit in your life (The Walking Magazine, November/December 2000). You may wish to use external rewards until the exercise becomes a reward in itself.

8. Pick fun activities.  Kate Hays recommends doing something you enjoy (Working It Out: Using Exercise in Psychotherapy). Getting a routine started is hard enough. If you are doing something you dislike, you will procrastinate or not follow through. Hiking, dancing, swimming, basketball, or walks are all great forms of exercise. Be creative.