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Stress Reduction and Management
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Kinetic (Movement) Strategies for Stress Relief

Harry Mills, Ph.D., Natalie Reiss, Ph.D. and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Kinetic strategies for stress relief involve motion or movement, like running or lifting weights. The idea is that muscular movement works with the fight-or-flight response and the physical body preparation that builds up to this response, rather than against it. By providing a direct outlet and release for the physical stress response, kinetic strategies prevent the buildup of muscular tension.

Physical Exercise

Physical activity is one of the best methods for fighting stress. Exercise helps you feel better by harnessing the body's natural fight or flight response, rather than suppressing it. Exercising for twenty minutes or more can enhance mood by releasing chemicals we've previously discussed called endorphins which relieve pain and increase a sense of well-being and relaxation. Exercise also helps relieve tension caused by muscle contraction. Exercise burns the energy that has been stored in the muscles, allowing them to return to their normal resting state after exercise is complete.

When choosing a specific form of exercise for stress management, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does it take an hour or less a day?
  • Is it possible to do easily and well without a great deal of mental effort?
  • Do I enjoy it?
  • If I persist in the activity, will I improve myself?
  • Can I do it without criticizing myself?

You will be more likely to make a particular exercise format a habit if you can answer yes to the above questions in relation to that exercise. The best way to stick with an exercise plan is to make it a natural part of every day (just like eating or brushing your teeth). Many people set a specific time each day to engage in physical activity. If you have to think and plan too much, it becomes easy to skip, avoid or postpone exercise.

There are multiple forms of exercise that you can use to manage stress. "Lifestyle exercise" is a way to utilize everyday activities as a form of exercise. Parking at the far end of the parking lot at the grocery (so you have to walk further), putting your own grocery bags into your car (rather than allowing the bagger to load them), and taking the stairs to meetings or appointments (rather than the elevator) are all examples of lifestyle exercise.

Other examples of lifestyle exercises include:

  • Mowing your lawn with a push mower
  • Raking leaves
  • Walking instead of driving your car
  • Playing catch with your children
  • Turning on your favorite music and dancing
  • Cleaning out the garage or attic
  • Washing your car by hand
  • Gardening, house, and yard work
  • Walking the dog

Some people prefer to exercise by participating in sports and/or activities with other people. Joining softball, tennis, soccer, basketball, etc. leagues offer a great combination of exercise and socialization. Regular sessions of running, biking, golfing, kayaking, racquetball, roller-blading, hiking or taking walks with friends and family, etc. can also be fun ways to beat stress.

Formal exercise programs tend to incorporate several different types of exercise: aerobic workouts, strength training workouts, and flexibility workouts. Aerobic (cardio) workouts increase endurance and promote physical (and heart) health. They involve a warm-up period followed by an active exercise period which should continue for 20-60 minutes of uninterrupted, rhythmic, large muscle movements at a moderately intense rate followed by a cool down and stretching period.

Strength Training workouts involve exercising with progressively heavier resistance in order to improve the musculoskeletal system. The workouts increase muscle strength (the maximum amount of force a muscle can exert for a brief period of time) as well as muscular endurance (the ability of a muscle to exert force repeatedly against resistance, or to hold a static or fixed contraction). Strength training is most frequently associated with using weights or weight machines, but it may also involve the strategic use of body weight, resistance bands/tubes, or water. In addition to the obvious benefits of being able to do everyday work and leisure activities with greater ease, strength training increases the amount of lean body mass (improving an individual's physical appearance), improves digestion, increases metabolism, reduces risk of injury and degenerative diseases, increases bone density, assists in lowering blood pressure, and produces many other helpful benefits. Strength training workouts usually involve a brief warm-up, followed by resistance exercises, a cool-down period and a few minutes of stretching.

Flexibility training workouts increase or maintain a range of motion in the body's many joints (shoulders, back of the legs (hamstrings), hips, back and spine, etc.) so as to better perform tasks of daily life, including recreational activities, with comfort and safety. Stretching should be performed before strenuous activity to elevate body temperature and increase the flow of blood to the muscles which will boost flexibility and reduce the risk of injury. Stretching should also be performed following aerobic or strength training when the muscles are warm so as to increase range of motion. Flexibility training sessions can also be performed as the sole form of exercise (rather than serving as a warm-up and cool-down to other forms of exercise).

In addition to the types of stretches frequently taught in gyms, seen in exercise videos and illustrated in the popular press, there are several low-impact flexibility disciplines, such as Yoga, Tai Chi and Pilates (described in the next section), that can help you control stress. All have ancient Eastern roots and are based on a shared premise that an intense level of concentration and fluid communication between body and mind results in a more relaxed body and calmer mind.