When you’re feeling tense, on edge, and overwhelmed, some good stress-relieving workouts to take out all that anger and frustration can really come in clutch.
It might seem counterintuitive to combat stress with another form of stress—yes, exercise is stress—but it’s considered a good kind of stress that can actually help your body fight off the effects of the “bad” kind of stress, Sarah C. McEwen, Ph.D., NSCA-CPT, director of research and programming for the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, tells SELF. In fact, regularly triggering that stress system by engaging in physical activity might help condition your body to deal with short-term stressors more efficiently. (Of course, exercise alone doesn’t replace treatment for depression and anxiety, so you should continue taking prescribed medications and see your therapist or doctor regularly.)
Plus, when you exercise, you breathe more, which promotes relaxation, Belinda Anderson, Ph.D., M.A., associate dean and professor of allied health programs at Pace University’s College of Health Professions, tells SELF. The simple act of movement helps too. “We often hold stress by tightening muscles and often don’t realize we are doing this,” she says. “The movement aspect relieves clenched muscles and stretches parts of the body that may be tight due to stress.”
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to exercise for stress relief, though there are some characteristics that might be especially beneficial. For example, exercising outdoors has been shown to have a greater benefit than indoors, McEwen says. And Anderson recommends gentle exercises, such as yoga, tai chi, and qi gong, which involve regulating breathing and deep breathing, which in turn can increase the relaxation response.
But take those as simple guidelines: It really all depends on what works for you.
“Whenever a client asks me the best type of exercise they should be doing for their brain, I always tell them to do what they enjoy and feel comfortable doing, not whatever the latest fad is,” McEwan says. “This helps build your intrinsic motivation to keep the habit going, since you’ll want to keep returning to it to get that feeling again and again.”
That said, we asked trainers and other fitness professionals to share their go-to stress-relieving workouts to give you some ideas you can try.
1. An intense kettlebell workout
A total-body, 15-minute kettlebell circuit training workout filled with compound moves like double-arm swings, overhead presses, goblet squats, bent-over rows, and pull-throughs is the ultimate stress reliever for Noam Tamir, C.S.C.S., CEO and founder of TS Fitness. He’ll rest 15 to 20 seconds between each exercise and complete three rounds total.
“Kettlebells are my go-to for a destressing workout. There is a big emphasis on breath work for kettlebells,” Tamir says. “In order to use them the most efficiently and effectively, you create a lot of tension in the body, and then release the tension through your breath.”
Check out this 20-minute total-body kettlebell workout, which includes a mix of bodyweight and strength training moves to get your heart rate pumping while building muscle.
2. Some easy hip and spine mobility drills
Sometimes you just need to take things slow and breathe—at least that’s what Sivan Fagan, C.P.T., founder of Strong With Sivan, likes to do. “I lie on my back and focus on my breathing, relaxing my entire body. I like to do this in a quiet space for 1 to 10 minutes,” she says.
In addition to following a breathing practice, she’ll do some light hip and spine mobility drills—like Downward Facing Dog to striders with a T-spine rotation, a seated 90-90 hip rotation, and a hip external rotation stretch—that help mobilize her joints.
“This helps me destress because I’m making a point to pause during a hectic day. It’s about being self-aware enough of how you’re feeling at a certain point—emotionally, mentally, physically—and prioritizing you by focusing on being present, mindful, and tapping into your parasympathetic system (the part of the nervous system that helps you relax and slows down your heart rate),” she says.
Try these 12 hip stretches and 11 lower-back exercises to relieve tightness and pain, and increase mobility.
3. A gentle yoga flow
When Jessica Rihal, a registered yoga teacher and meditation instructor based in Orange County, California, is looking to relieve stress, she’ll do a series of poses in prone (belly down) or tabletop position to help her focus on breathing and relaxing.
Some of her favorite poses for relieving stress are a supported variation of Child’s Pose, Cat-Cow, Thread the Needle, Hug the Earth, and a reclined position with bolsters or legs up on the wall.
“I find poses that keep me prone or in tabletop position are most helpful because having my face down allows me to withdraw my senses, focus on breathing and help to promote relaxation,” Rihal says. “I will typically use blocks, a bolster, and even my eye mask to help make my practice supportive and restorative.”
Start feeling zen right away with these six calming yoga poses.
4. WOD strength training
Depending on how you’re feeling, stress may make you crave doing something either relaxing or adrenaline-pumping. That’s true for Marcia Darbouze, D.P.T., a physical therapist and registered yoga instructor based in Hollywood, Florida.
“I have two forms of movement that give me joy and help me destress: the physical practice of yoga and strength training. Either way, I’ll opt for movement alone and enjoy the solitude,” Darbouze, cohost of the Disabled Girls Who Lift podcast, tells SELF.
If she is craving more movement, she’ll do a quick, 10-minute cardio and strength training workout. For example, she’ll do a barbell and resistance band circuit, which includes barbell cleans, barbell strict presses (overhead press), banded trunk rotations (hold band and twist away), banded Pallof presses (hold band and press away from your chest without rotating), and kneeling windmills with a kettlebell.
“Strength training in WOD form is a great way to burn off energy without having to calculate numbers or percentages. It’s also a great way to add in more small and accessory movements that help me move better,” she says. “And once I’m done sweating, I’m done stressing.”
If you want to put some movement behind weight, try these six basic barbell exercises, and for a more relaxing routine, get started with these 12 beginner yoga poses.
5. Your favorite sport
If traditional gym-based workouts don’t exactly ooze relaxation for you, consider engaging in a sport you love instead. Nate Feliciano, owner and head of training at private fitness studio Studio 16 in New York City, likes playing basketball with his friends to distract his mind.
“Playing basketball with my friends helps me take my mind off what’s stressing me out and helps me focus on something small, like winning the basketball game or talking smack with my friends,” he says.
Since close-contact sports with groups aren’t advisable now due to COVID-19, you may need to focus more on individual aspects of your favorite sport—say, working on your foul shot in basketball or perfecting your tennis serve (try a virtual challenge to include the social aspect). Or get the one-on-one game going with someone in your household.
6: An intense HIIT workout
When you need to let out some steam, a HIIT workout might just be the remedy you need. For Hannah Eden, an iFit trainer, doing a HIIT workout and finishing with a bodyweight flow helps reduce her stress. Her style of HIIT combines short, intense bursts of cardio with resistance training using minimal equipment and takes less than 30 minutes. To finish things off, she does an Animal Flow, which includes movement patterns such as Beast, Crab, and Scorpion. Ideally, she likes to do her workout outdoors in an open space.
“The high-intensity-interval portion allows me to exert the buildup of stress through short bursts of intense movement, almost as if it is a space to release the negative feelings and thoughts that populate our mind and body,” Eden says. And the Animal Flow portion makes her feel calmer and gives her the proper headspace to reflect on things.
Try this 10-minute total-body dumbbell HIIT routine, and then work on your own bear crawl with this HIIT-based lower-body and core workout.
7. A Pilates workout
To help her destress, Andrea Speir, founder of Speir Pilates, turns to a 45-minute Pilates reformer workout in her garage. Using the Pilates reformer helps her stretch tight muscles and increase circulation while challenging her muscles to the point of fatigue. This leaves her body and mind refreshed and strong.
“I get a sweat going and work every part of my body, but don’t feel like it was an impossible amount of time that was carved out of my day,” Speir says. “I’ve stashed a reformer in my garage and created my private little workout oasis in there.”
Trainer Rebekah Santiago turns to a full-body Pilates flow, using her bodyweight, ankle weights, resistance bands, or a combo of all three. The intensity depends on how she’s feeling that day, and the workout will last anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour.
“I’ve always been a little too antsy for meditation and yoga, so Pilates has always been a happy medium between something more relaxed and something more intense like a HIIT workout,” Santiago says. “This entails a series of movements put together into a short sequence in order to challenge the muscles at the deepest level, as well as strengthen the mind-body connection using breathing techniques.”
Don’t have access to a reformer? Try this 10-minute butt and core Pilates workout using just your bodyweight. You can also focus on your breathing and challenge your muscles with any of these fun Pilates workout videos that take less than 25 minutes.
8. A HIIT-style resistance band workout
A 30-minute resistance band workout filled with exercises that challenge muscles concentrically and eccentrically—on the up and down portions of the move—is a must for Floery Mahoney, founder of Board30 method, a unique resistance band system that’s taught HIIT-style. She’ll do exercises for a full minute and take 20-second breaks in between.
“The minute-on really works the muscle to the point of complete fatigue, and then the 20-second recovery gets you ready for the next exercise,” Mahoney says. “This maximizes the workout and ups the intensity, making the most of the 30-minute time frame.”
Check out this total-body resistance band workout.
9. Cardio and core work
Nothing beats pounding pavement for Dogpound Los Angeles trainer Matt Tralli, who starts his day with a two- to four-mile run. “I love to listen to motivating music to take my mind off of everything,” he says. After running, he will do a seven-minute abs routine, which consists of 14 different core exercises, 30 seconds each. It’s easy to follow along, he says, and it takes just 30 to 45 minutes to get in both aspects.
“What I love about this is that I can do this anywhere, any place, any time. It’s a simple run and abs to get my day started in a productive way,” Tralli says.
Try this 30-minute running workout (which you can do on a treadmill or outdoors), and then finish off with a 5-minute ab routine.
10. An Outdoor Run
McEwen has been a distance runner her whole life, so it’s no surprise that she finds stress relief from logging miles along the beach.
“I typically run four times a week for 30 to 60 minutes with varying intensities, from slow and steady to fast interval workouts, but always outdoors,” McEwen says. “I’m lucky enough to live close to the beach, but I also like to vary my training environment to match my mood.”
For example, if she’s feeling intense and focused, she’ll do an interval run on busy city streets with fast-paced music. But if she needs solitude and contemplation, she’ll run on the beach while listening to a podcast.
“I find this connection with my current mood state and flexibility to choose my exercise environment has a huge effect on the lasting impacts of the exercise on my mood during the rest of the day and how I connect with the world in my personal and work life,” McEwen says.
Make your long runs feel easier with these training tips from the pros.