The Best Exercise for Stress Management

How to find what will support you

Laura Khoudari

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Person with long hair in athletic wear photographed jumping up in a celebratory fashion on top of a mountain.
Photo: Peter Conlan / Unsplash

While I often talk about exercise as a form of stress management, it’s not usually the focus of my work, but lately it has been taking center stage.

In April, I did five speaking engagements for a variety of audiences. I spoke to high school students, fitness professionals, folks who work with animals, corporate professionals, and narcissistic abuse survivors. In each workshop, I talked about trauma (which is to be expected from a trauma practitioner) and spoke a lot about managing stress though exercise. In order to understand how exercise can be used to manage stress, we first have neutralize the charge on the word “stress.” That’s fairly easy to do if you look at its definition: stress is how the brain and body respond to any type of challenge.

Stress is how the brain and body respond to any type of challenge.

That’s it. Stress is neither good, nor bad — it just is.

When we talk about stress, we tend to say things like “I’m so stressed out,” but rarely when those words pass our lips do we think about what they mean. Our words imply that at present things are bad, because we think of stress as bad.

Yes, there are plenty of awful or just annoying occurrences that are stressors, but exercise, healing work, and doing hard things that you chose to do and are passionate about are also stressors. When you engage with any challenge, your heart rate and muscle tension increase, your breathing changes, and you experience the world more keenly through your senses. That’s supposed to happen! Your body is trying to help you do the hard thing by engaging in the stress response cycle. It’s how earlier humans survived sharing the world with lions, and tigers, and bears. (Oh my!)

And we twenty-first century humans use stress to do hard things too. It keeps us going so we can pull an all-nighter before an exam, give a riveting presentation to secure the big client, or cross the finish line in a race. Stress helps us focus in moments of crisis. It also helps us do wild things like lift cars to save lives. And yet, we keep telling ourselves stress is “bad” for our health and that it undermines us. It’s not quite that simple.

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Laura Khoudari

Trauma-informed personal trainer and author of Lifting Heavy Things.