To calm body and mind, get moving

Published: November, 2013

A burst of physical activity after the stress response is triggered — let's says by sprinting away from an oncoming bus — burns off stress hormones just as nature intended.

But you don't need an imminent physical threat to use exercise as a way to take the edge off every day stress. Just about any form of motion helps relieve pent-up muscle tension. And certain activities, such as yoga, tai chi, and qigong, and rhythmic, repetitive exercise, such as walking, running, swimming, bicycling, and rowing, elicit the relaxation response, too. All of these things are especially helpful if you do them regularly.

To boost the stress-relief rewards that come from being physically active, it helps to increase your awareness— what and how you're feeling, your environment, etc. — during exercise. This small shift in focus can leave you feeling calmer and more centered. This approach is as effective during strength training as it is when you're on a nature walk. As you lift and plant each foot, or as you raise and lower the weights, coordinate your breathing with your movements, keeping mindful attention on the sensations in your body.

Once you get under way, become aware of how your breathing complements the activity. Breathe rhythmically. If you have a focus word, phrase, or prayer that you use when meditating, use that word now as you breathe. When disruptive thoughts intrude, gently turn your mind away from them and focus on moving and breathing.

The recipe for a mindful walk

Taking a mindful walk is a good example of exercising with relaxation in mind. As you move and breathe rhythmically, be aware of the sensations of your body. How does it feel as your breath flows in through your nostrils and out through your mouth?

Gradually expand your awareness to the sights and smells around you. Notice the freshly mown grass, flowers, trees, fallen leaves, dappled sun, or gray clouds. How does the outside air feel against your body? How does the surface beneath your feet feel and sound? What thoughts are moving through your head? A slow, mindful walk helps center and relax you.

Alternatively, a brisker pace that pushes your limits can be calming and energizing in equal parts. In this case, place more emphasis on the sensations of your body, such as your quickened breathing and heartbeat and the way your muscles respond as you tax them.

Find out how you can keep stress from undermining your health and wellbeing buy Stress Management: Approaches to Preventing and Reducing Stress, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.

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