Fighting with your guy or having your brilliant (or so you thought) ideas vetoed in a meeting can compel you to head straight to the weight room or the running path—and for good reason. A serious sweat session zaps stress, releasing tension and anger, and boosting levels of feel-good brain chemicals including endorphins.
But far from canceling each other out, psychological stress and exercise have a much more complicated relationship—and not always a compatible one. Relationship troubles or pressure at the office can distract your mind and overwhelm your body, derailing your workout routine and preventing you from reaching your fitness and weight-loss goals. But science shows you can learn to harness stress to boost your success in the gym—and outside it.
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Stress Throws Off Your Gym Game
When you’re facing big deadlines or coping with a family crisis, spin class sometimes falls off your priorities list. Yale University researchers looked at all the studies they could find on stress and exercise habits, and three-fourths showed that people under pressure tend to slack off on physical activity and spend more time sedentary. In one of the studies reviewed, participants were 21 percent less likely to work out regularly during times of stress—and 32 percent less likely to stick to their sweat schedule over the following four years.
Outsmart it: Doing workouts in tandem with other stress-management techniques such as deep breathing may increase the likelihood you’ll follow a regular exercise routine, the study authors suggest. Try a walking meditation, where you focus on paying close attention to your breath and what’s going on around you while you stride. Or even simpler: Smile while you sweat. A study in Psychological Science suggests even faking a half-smile can lower your heart rate and reduce your stress response almost instantly, perhaps because activating facial muscles involved in a cheerful expression sends a happiness-inducing message to your brain.