If exercise were available as a pill, experts say, everyone would be taking it. One reason is that exercise is very good at defusing stress. If you exercise — especially right when the stress response is triggered — you burn off stress hormones just as nature intended, instead of letting them pile up.
What's more, just about any form of motion on a regular basis helps relieve pent-up tension. Rhythmic, repetitive movements, such as walking, running, swimming, bicycling, and rowing — and specific types of exercise such as yoga, tai chi, and qigong — actually elicit the relaxation response, too. Regularly engaging in these kinds of activities can help you ward off everyday stress.
To boost the stress-relief rewards, you'll need to shift your attention to become aware of yourself — what and how you're feeling — and your surroundings during exercise. This should leave you feeling calmer and more centered.
During physical activity, try to become aware of how your breathing complements the activity. Breathe rhythmically and coordinate your breathing with your movements, focusing your attention mindfully on the sensations in your body. When disruptive thoughts intrude, gently turn your mind away from them and focus on moving and breathing.
Keep it simple — you don't always need to sign up for a special exercise class. A mindful walk can do wonders. As you walk, expand your awareness to the sights and smells around you. Notice the freshly mown grass, flowers, fallen leaves, sun-dappled trees, 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?
For more tips that can help you to recognize, manage, and reduce stress, buy Stress Management, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.