Using Exercise to Relax: Does It Really Work?

With the COVID-19 pandemic surpassing 2 years, it’s no surprise that stress levels are at a high point from recent years. Unfortunately, around 33% of people in the US report experiencing extreme stress recently.

However, the pandemic has also raised another figure, as more people are understanding the value of exercise than ever. With gyms opening up everywhere, we think it’s time to talk about how to use exercise to relax!

What Is Stress?

Before we explain how exercise can help with stress, what exactly causes stress?

Well, stress is usually associated with the excess presence of cortisol in the body, also known as the “stress hormone”, which can cause a lot of damage to your health. Elevated levels of cortisol, if prolonged, can lead to serious illnesses like heart disease, cause mental health issues, and shave years off of a person’s life.

Of course, many things can cause people to experience stress.

As we go throughout our days at work or in our personal lives, it’s nearly impossible to avoid stress. It’s a natural part of life. However, it’s essential that our bodies have enough time to relax, think clearly, and destress.

When we talk about relaxing, we’re generally trying to reduce our levels of cortisol, achieve a healthy chemical balance, and more. This can be done by improving our breathing, sleep cycles, and so much more that can be achieved through exercise.

Okay, but isn’t exercise technically a stressor? Well, let’s talk about that.

Can You Really Exercise to Relax?

Absolutely. Exercise is a known tool to help with both mental and physical health. Let’s talk about some of the effects of exercise on stress reduction and how those factors work together to help you relax.

Effects on Brain Chemistry

As you read this, your brain and body are working together to achieve a certain balance of hormones, endorphins, and neurotransmitters within your body. These chemicals, when in balance, help us achieve a steady mood, perform necessary bodily functions, and even learn or problem-solve.

However, when these chemicals are imbalanced, they can do a lot of damage, including:

  • Weaken our immune systems
  • Worsen health conditions (mental or physical)
  • Increase risk for certain diseases
  • Increase cortisol production
  • Lead to memory loss
  • Cause depression or anxiety

The list goes on. Exercise is your best natural defense against developing or worsening chemical imbalances in your brain.

Most importantly, the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine (responsible for feeling calm and pleasure) must be in line for relaxation, stress reduction, and preventing mental illness.

Exercise helps your body regulate these chemicals naturally, without the assistance of medication or anything else. This alone can improve so many functions within your body, which is why medical professionals say “if a pill could do what exercise can for your body, it would be the greatest medical advancement in history”.

Improved Sleep

A proper exercise routine is certain to help the average person improve their quality of sleep. Quality sleep is important for our overall physical and mental health, brain chemistry, and relaxation.

For most adults, 7 to 8 hours of quality sleep is recommended. Even if you think you’re getting enough now, there’s no way to tell how high-quality your sleep is, especially if you aren’t exercising.

If you aren’t achieving at least 3 to 5 REM cycles a night, then you’re falling below the average, which can lead to serious health conditions over time, as well as the immediate buildup of cortisol.

Improved Breathing

Exercise is known to help improve oxygen flow through your body by increasing lung capacity and blood flow. There’s a reason yoga is all about breathing, and it involves the stress-reductive properties of increased oxygen levels.

Decreased Muscle Tension

While this may sound counterintuitive, a healthy regimen of exercise and stretching will reduce or eliminate muscle tension. When paired with massage and a healthy diet, the benefits are even greater.

This decrease in muscular tension could help your body relax throughout the day, make daily activities less challenging, and reduce stress over time.

Increased Self-Confidence

A common reason for anxiety, stress and other similar conditions is low self-esteem. Exercising, especially exercising to relax, works to address this issue by increasing our confidence in our health, appearance, and physical abilities!

Setting Goals

Let’s say you train for a bike race, start lifting weights, or anything else; you’ll be working toward a goal. Setting goals is important for our mental health, our sense of worth, and so much more.

When you have a hobby and an ambition on your own time, sticking to a clear set of goals can help clear your mind of stressors and help you feel at ease throughout the day.

How Much Exercise Do You Need?

The CDC, as well as other major authorities, agree that the average adult should be achieving 150 minutes of aerobic exercise each week. Keep in mind, there’s no specified upper limit to this, nor is there a recommended activity.

Ideally, this will take place in five 30-minute sessions throughout the week, but that won’t work for everybody. There are plenty of ways to enjoy longer workouts by breaking up your sessions.

Moreover, this is only discussing aerobic exercise. There are plenty of other beneficial exercise forms to try, including deep breathing exercises, stretching, strength training, or more specialized exercise like facial exercises or physical therapy.

If you have an active job, you may already hit this number. However, work isn’t always a “de-stressing” environment. Hitting the yoga mat or going for a walk outside of work is still enjoyable and will still offer the relaxing benefits you’re looking for.

What Kinds of Exercises Are Best?

Any exercise is better than no exercise, so do something you’ll enjoy. If that means biking, walking, playing a sport, running, or lifting weights, then by all means, enjoy yourself!

On top of your aerobic exercise, focus on trying different breathing and stretching exercises, as these are shown to help dramatically reduce stress. Meditation is also very beneficial.

However, there are some options that’ll help you achieve more stress-relieving benefits, especially when paired with the right lifestyle choices. More specifically, there’s been promising research on the effects of yoga and cannabis. Yoga is the best exercise to relax your mind, soul, and body.

Again, anything that’ll keep you exercising for the long term is what’s most important. If you don’t like walking on the road but you love hiking up mountains, then that’s what’s right for you. The only bad workout is the one that never happened!

What About Mental Exercise?

As you can see, yoga isn’t a joke when it comes to relaxation. They know what they’re talking about, as their primary objectives are to help people relax. Stretching and deep breathing exercises will help ease stress on their own, but why not attack stress at its source?

That’s exactly what yoga and meditation exercises seek to do, allowing you to clear your mind and organize your thoughts.

Find a time and place that’ll help you avoid distractions or interruptions, get comfortable, and try to achieve a positive mental attitude. Close your eyes to block out distractions, and simply try to block your passing thoughts and achieve a blank mental state.

Spending 15 to 30 minutes on mental exercises each day could dramatically improve both your relaxation and stress levels.

Relaxation Exercises to Try

For an effective exercise to relax, try to focus on the major muscle groups and clear your mind of anything else. Tighten each muscle and maintain the contraction for 20 seconds before slowly releasing it. As the muscle relaxes, concentrate on the release of tension and the sensation of relaxation.

Starting with your face, try to wrinkle your forehead and arch your eyebrows. Hold for a few seconds, then relax. Close your eyes tightly and hold, then relax.

Next, wrinkle your nose and flare your nostrils. Again, hold, then relax. Clench your jaw, hold, relax.

Try working your way down from there by holding a tight contraction on one muscle or muscle group until you reach down to your toes. This entire process should only take between 10 and 15 minutes. Try to practice this routine twice daily and it should become second nature to you within a couple of weeks!

Start Your Routine Today

Now that you know how to exercise to relax, there’s no time like the present to start enjoying these benefits. Once you develop the right routine, you’ll have no problem adhering to a program that makes you feel great throughout the day!

Start now and stay up-to-date with our blog for our latest lifestyle tips!