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The Case for Calmer, Less Intense Workouts

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Exercise is one of the best ways to relieve stress: A good workout has been shown to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, help you feel calmer, and alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety. But even for fitness buffs, the latest craze in exercise can be intense. Classes such as New York City's Tone House use sports conditioning to train everyday people like athletes; packed classes require sign-ups a full week in advance. And with endless studios to choose from (and workouts doubling as networking events), a fitness schedule can become just as packed as a work schedule. All too easily, your workout can grow from a stress reliever into an actual stressor.

That's particularly true if you're not making time for recovery. "Exercise can alleviate stress, but it can also wear you down and make you more vulnerable to stress if you constantly push hard," says Michele Olson, Ph.D., an adjunct professor of sports science at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, AL. Without proper rest, stress hormones such as cortisol increase; levels of lactate (a by-product of exercise that causes fatigue and soreness) tend to stay above normal; and both your resting heart rate and your resting blood pressure can increase, she says. "There are times to push through a workout, but this doesn't need to be the case every single session," says Olson. (Related: Why Finding ~Balance~ Is the Best Thing You Can Do for Your Health & Fitness Routine

That could be why some companies—particularly those that offer higher-intensity classes—are making changes. Tone House, for example, recently launched a recovery program complete with ice baths and physical therapy. ​Fusion Fitness, a popular high-intensity workout studio in Kansas City, MO, also launched a stretching and mindfulness class called The Stretch Lab.

"We get so consumed with the need to burn calories and build muscle, that we forget to give our body the benefit of stretching," says Darby Brender, owner of Fusion Fitness. "Having a healthy body means appreciating your body and taking care of it. Our bodies do everything for us. We love the idea of treating ourselves to a few extra minutes per day to be still." 

Other studios have taken aim at different stressors associated with working out. Denver-based CorePower Yoga, for one, fills its classes mainly on a walk-in basis (though New Yorkers do have an option to sign up in advance).

And it's not as stressful as it sounds.

"It's in the spirit of community that we do our best to accommodate people on a walk-in basis," says Amy Opielowski, senior manager of quality and innovation for CorePower Yoga. "Imagine running late to your favorite workout class, thinking you're going to miss it or it's going to be booked up, and then having other people move their mats over to fit you in!" The policy, she notes, also fosters much-needed IRL convos.

A no-sign-up policy also offers flexibility in an overscheduled world. If your schedule changes, you can easily pop into a class, no stress, no app required.

So how can you tell if your fitness routine is stressing you out? If you're worried about missing a workout or tend to beat yourself up about not feeling 110 percent at or after every session, your program could be in desperate need of a rework, says Olson. Take these steps to de-stress, stat.

Drop the Guilt
You don't need to do an intense workout every single day. "It's not a crisis to break out of your pattern and routine and do a different workout," Olson says. "It may be the very best thing your body needs to break out of a rut."

Aim for Variety
If you spin and only spin, it's time to switch things up. Any exercise that's aimed at active recovery and relaxation can work wonders in helping you to recover, says Olson. (And FYI, there are a ton of health benefits associated with trying something new.) 

And while yoga—with its focus on the mind-body connection—is always a good option, it's not the only one. A bodyweight workout such as mat Pilates, which also involves stretching and diaphragmatic breathing can work, as can (if you're sore) a moderate cardio workout, which will increase circulation and help oxidize both chemical markers of DOMS and stress hormones, helping the body to recover, she notes. Moderate swimming or an aqua class that works against the resistance of water in a low-impact way also increases heart rate, breathing, and circulation.

Shoot for a restorative session one to three times a week depending on the intensity and frequency of your regular sessions, Olson says.

Try This "Glitter Jar" Analogy
Brender suggests a fun meditation to free up mental space. Try it post-workout. Lie faceup on the floor with your legs propped against a wall at a 90-degree angle. Imagine a jar full of water (that's your mind). Then imagine piles of different colored glitter (your life compartments) dumping into the jar. (Silver glitter will be for family, red for work, blue for friends, green for stress, and pink for love.) Now, imagine shaking the jar all day long. "This is our mind every day attempting to do it all," says Brender. "When we're always bouncing around going in different directions, the glitter is always moving. If we can learn to take the time to slow down and be still, we can imagine the glitter now falling slowly to the bottom of the jar." This is our mind letting all of the racing thoughts and distractions sink down and be still. Now we have a clear mind and we are more capable of balancing each of those life compartments.

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