You get home from a long day at the office. After a row with your boss, disagreements with colleagues, and feeling like you've accomplished very little despite working your fingers to the bone for the best part of 10 hours, the gym feels like the last thing you want to do.
Add to that those inevitable family conflicts, a hectic social life and all your day to day chores and stresses and hitting the treadmill or attending your spin class seems even less appealing.
The easy option is to crash on the couch instead, maybe watch a DVD, read a book or get a takeaway, but all you end up doing is fretting and nothing gets the stress out of your head.
Why not hit the gym instead?
Considering many people get stressed out just at the idea of exercise, this might sound bizarre, but the benefits of cardiovascular exercise on stress and anxiety levels are well documented.
First up, it has a positive effect on your brain.
Stress can seriously damage your brain, and your memory in particular. The part of your brain responsible for a lot of memory functions – the hippocampus can actually atrophy (break down) when you’re under high stress levels. Exercise however reverses this effect as it promotes the release of neurohormones that can elevate your mood, improve cognitive function and ultimately improve your memory. This is the reason why people often say that exercise makes you smarter. It may be a very simplistic way of putting it, but there’s certainly a lot of truth there.
All your body’s systems are interlinked, so by improving one aspect you have an indirect, though substantial effect on your brain function and stress levels. Your whole body is involved in the stress response process.
Your cardiovascular system links with your renal system, which in turn communicates with you muscular system. Your central and sympathetic nervous system is the big daddy of all of these and controls how efficiently our bodies deal with stress and crisis. A healthy cardiovascular system makes your whole body work more effectively, and leaves you in a far better place to cope with stress.
There’s also the plain and simple reason that when performing cardio, you don’t have to think about your stresses and issues.
Runners know it as the “runner’s high,” when you finish a run and feel on top of the world – all your stresses seem to have disappeared and you feel like you could accomplish anything. This is due in part to the endorphins your body releases during exercise, that lead to feelings of positivity.
This endorphin response isn't limited to running though. Any type of cardio that elevates your heart rate, causes you to break a sweat and generally work hard will have this effect, so choose your weapon – the cross trainer, stepper, rower, even an outdoor bike ride or a swim at your local pool will act as stress relief.
Stress-Busting 101: The Cardio Exercises
Let’s start at the bottom and work our way up, going with the simplest ways to bust little grievances, right up to the big, intense forms of cardio to get rid of the world’s worst forms of stress.
Yep, just a simple walk can do the trick.
Don’t jump on a treadmill at the gym though – head out to a local park, the beach or some woods and make the most of the natural scenery. You’d be amazed how relaxing and stimulating an hour or so of gentle walking can be. It may not make you the fittest guy or girl on the planet, but sometimes all you need is a little walking to de-stress.
Spinning, Body pump, combat, circuits, legs bums and Tums, abs, boxercise – take your pick.
The huge bonus classes have over regular CV exercise is the interaction with other people. When you’re stressed and freaked out, you may want to just hide yourself away, but meeting with others gives you the opportunity to vent and forces you to get out of the dumps.
A tight knit group along with a motivating instructor can also give you the inspiration and drive to push harder and make the most of your workout.
This was mentioned earlier in regards to the runner’s high, but there really is nothing like pounding the pavements for de-stressing.
When running, you can let your mind wander. Hopefully it will wander to a better, stress-free place, but if it doesn't, grab your mp3 player, stick on a podcast, your favorite album or even some classical music and run until you can run no more.
Let’s face it, when you’re stressed, sometimes all it needs to make you feel better is a good bit of aggression release. While you may not get this from a peaceful walk in the countryside or a plod along on the treadmill, some forms of aggressive cardio will give you a real buzz and help you workout out a few demons.
We’re talking hill sprints, boxing, a body-weight circuit or even some kettlebell work, which combined cardio with lifting big heavy lumps of iron. If these high-intensity, aggressive activities don’t cure your stress, nothing will.
Beating stress with cardio is all about being motivated and proactive. This is much easier said than done, as it takes an iron will and some serious determination, but with the right mindset you can do it.
Make a plan whenever stress strikes and try to act before you get overly stressed. Should you feel yourself start to get overwhelmed, or think that a stress storm is brewing, up your cardio sessions straight away.
Plan your workouts in your diary and don’t let anything get in the way. Increasing your exercise really can decrease stress levels and stop anxiety from ruining your health. And what’s more important than staying healthy?