Feeling frazzled? Overwhelmed? Panicked? Drowning in anxiety? Trust me, you’re not alone.
We know that exercise can relieve stress and support mental health, but is there a particular kind of exercise that’s best? It depends on who you ask – and the way your body and brain work. If you were to ask my therapist, he’d say yoga. Ask a SoulCycle devotee, and they’d say Spin is their personal Xanax. And according to experts POPSUGAR consulted, neither of those options is incorrect.
“There is no wrong answer as to what kind of movement is best for stress relief,” said Nicolette Amarillas, a San Francisco-based postural specialist and strength coach. “But I find it helpful to do this: ask yourself, what does my body want right now? Really ask, and most of all, really listen.” She went on to explain that “our mental stress is expressed physically in the body, and this is why movement is vital to our mental health.”
So consider – does yoga sound really good to you right now, or are you craving a run? Does boxing take your mind off everything, or do you want to focus on your breath and core with Pilates? What is your body telling you? The workout that brings you joy is likely the one that will relieve stress.
“So many times we let our minds make the decision when it’d be best to actually let the body tell us what it needs,” Amarillas said. “Your body is always working for you, working to keep you healthy, and if you let it tell you what it needs, instead of forcing it to do what you think it needs, it will in turn work more efficiently at managing things like stress.” (It’s a good reminder to forget what you “should” do, and instead do what feels right for you.)
This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to do a traditional workout. “Everyone is different, but often times I find that my body wants something simple like a walking meditation – time outside with no technology and no destination in mind,” said Amarillas.
Liz Letchford, PhD-C, ATC, founder of The Release, agreed that there’s no single workout to relieve stress, but Letchford did have some tips based on where you’re at on the stress scale. Chiefly, if stress is particularly crippling, you may want to scale back on the bootcamps and Tabata. “If you notice that you’re having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, if you wake up not feeling refreshed, if you’re having trouble eating – if you’re at that level of stress – cardio or HIIT is not going to be the best option for you,” she told POPSUGAR. (The combination of extreme psychological stress and physical stress from cardio might be bad for your body.) Instead, she recommends opting for something low-key and low-impact, like yoga.
“If you’re really, really stressed, you might be what we call ‘sympathetically dominant,'” said Letchford, referencing the sympathetic nervous system, which dictates your fight-or-flight response. Essentially, your stress response is throwing a (very anxious) party in your nervous system. “Those HIIT and bootcamp classes fuel that sympathetic nervous system, when what you need is to downregulate and tap into your de-stress response by activating the parasympathetic nervous system,” she said.
If you’re feeling general stress in your body and you’re not completely overwhelmed, Letchford says to try strength training. It can still be low-impact, and you’ll be giving your body a clinically-backed tool to improve your mental health. “The chemical release that occurs after a strength-training workout can have both physiological and psychological benefits,” Letchford explained.
So whether you’re stilling your mind with yin yoga and meditation, going outside for a walk, chasing a runner’s high, or lifting some weights, chances are you’re going to feel some serious stress relief. It’s a win-win.