The benefits of physical activity

Exercise to help stress levels

Exercise reduces your adrenaline levels and triggers the release of endorphins – hormones which kill pain, lift spirits, and help your body to get back to normal after a stress attack.

After a difficult day, going to an exercise class or taking a dip in a swimming pool will help you thrash out pent-up aggression. Your head will feel clearer, your body re-energised, and you will generally feel calmer and more able to relax and enjoy your evening. Physical activity can help to make stress what should be: a brief helpful response to challenge rather than a permanent ball and chain.

Start gradually

Most people who try to get into shape after a period of inactivity are in too much a hurry. Unfortunately, there are no instant solutions to fitness and there is only a fine line that divides conditioning yourself and exhausting yourself.

Choose a sport or activity and start off slowly – if you have not run in years, you cannot expect to go out and run a five-minute mile straight away. Build up your stamina by exercising for increasingly longer lengths of time. In this way you will be motivated to keep to your programme. Trying to do too much, too soon, can be painful – it may even lead to injury and, as a result, you are more likely to give up.

Make it fun

Unfortunately, you cannot store the physical and psychological benefits of exercise in a cupboard and take them out when you need them. The only way you can reap the benefits is if you exercise regularly and, to do that, the sport or activity has to be fun, convenient and safe.

Choose an activity that you find genuinely enjoyable – if you hate water, avoid swimming. It sounds obvious, but if exercising becomes a chore, it is likely to do you more harm than good. And remember, exercising does not mean that you have to suffer for an hour among a mass of sweaty, heaving bodies in a trendy gym. Housework, gardening, mowing the lawn, walking the dog, and dancing all provide excellent physical exercise.


Most of us will use the flimsiest of excuses not to exercise. And if it ever becomes remotely inconvenient, we will refuse to struggle to the pool or gym when we could be at home watching the television.

The trick of avoiding this scenario is to make your exercise sessions as convenient as possible. Plan to exercise when you know you will have time available. Leave your kit at work and go for a walk in your lunch break. Go to the swimming pool or gym on the way home from work rather than going home first – once you are home it is often hard to go out again.

Keep it safe

If you have not exercised for a while, or have recently been ill, consult your doctor for a check-up before embarking on an exercise programme that will involve strenuous activity. While you are at your doctor’s, why not use your appointment to discuss the best form of activity for you?

Always bear in the back of your mind that the goal of exercise is to train not strain. If you feel any pain, dizziness, or shortness of breath while exercising, stop immediately and pay your doctor a visit.

Set realistic goals

Do not allow yourself to become too competitive if you are already stressed out – you will be simply piling one stress on top of another. Pushing yourself to beat your previous best, or to thrash your partner at squash, will add to the stress in your life, not reduce it. If you feel the need for more stress, fierce competition is fine. But if more stress is the last thing you need, avoid the temptation to goad yourself too hard – play to enjoy the activity rather than just to win.

Add variety

If you get bored with one sport, switch to another – adding variety to your programme will help to keep you motivated. If you go to the gym, use a different piece of equipment each time you go. To ensure a balanced work-out, do something aerobic every other day.

Alternating activities in this way will also avoid stressing the same muscle groups on consecutive days. Try swimming one day and power walking the next for good all round fitness.

Walk to beat stress

Brisk walking on a regular basis is a near-perfect way of exercising. Apart from a good pair of trainers, it costs nothing and can be done at any time, anywhere. Another bonus of walking is that it can be adjusted to suit your own level of fitness.

When walking for fitness, you need to stride fast enough so that you breathe deeply but are not short of breath. For best results walk for at least half an hour three or four times a week. The added advantage of walking over other activities is that everyone in the family can take part, making it an excellent form of family stress control.

To get into the habit of walking:

• Never drive less than one mile – make the decision to walk instead;
• Park your car further away from your destination than normal – this will make you walk a bit further;
• Get off the bus a stop earlier than usual and finish your journey on foot;
• Use stairs instead of taking a lift or escalator;
• Do not make bad weather an excuse not to walk – use an umbrella.

In the next section we’ll look at how diet and the right nutrition can help reduce stress.

Eat to beat stress >>

Text Copyright © Alix Needham
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