The five steps to using exercise for a complete solution to chronic stress

In part one, I talked about five ways to rethink stress so you can recognize the sensations of stress and distinguish between acute, short-term stress and chronic, long-term stress. I also talked about how the opposite of stress is not relaxation but well-being and how in the stressed state, your body is begging you to move, so it can return to a state of being well. 


1. Rethink exercise beyond movement

Not all movement reduces stress. Some movement keeps you in a stress response. The health promotion message to  ‘move more’ in an effort to get people to exercise more is actually taking us away from using exercise in the way that will improve health and well-being. Here’s why: 

  • Movement includes when you move to take care of someone or something else, such as daily activities. 
  • Exercise is when you move for the sole purpose of improving the function of your mind and body.

There are many uses of exercise, and not all are stress-reducing.

  • Exercise done for improving sports performance is movement specifically done for the purpose of gaining a competitive edge and often, the side effects are pain and fatigue. 
  • Exercise done without consideration for the science of how the body functions is stress-producing because it often leads to more pain, greater risk of injury, and wasted time. 
  • When exercise is done for the purpose of being healthy and well, guided by movement sciences, the sole purpose of moving is to take care of yourself. 

For example, getting enough steps because you want to lose weight becomes another task on a long to do list, movement is less likely to get you out of the stress response. Since the stress response signals the body to hold on to fat, and the brain to seek comfort from things like food and alcohol, using exercise to avoid the state of chronic stress is the main way exercise helps with weight loss. When you know how to move to return to a state of well, your body is in the state where it is more willing to shed excess fat and you are less likely to use food to soothe emotions.

This is why it helps to rethink exercise from a ‘should’ to a form of self-care, where you will not only spend less time in a stressed state,  you will be self-motivated to keep exercising, especially in times of stress when you need it most.  

2. Keep a growth mindset about exercise

The research on mindset is fascinating. When we apply it to how we think about exercise, it opens up a new world of possibilities of how to use exercise to create your stress solutions.
A “growth mindset” is one that thrives in the face of challenge and sees failure not as proof you don’t have what it takes to succeed, but as an invitation to grow and strengthen your abilities. A fixed mindset believes you are hardwired a certain way and that it is not changeable. When it comes to exercise, a fixed mindset includes phrases like:

  • Saying you are not an exerciser
  • Believing you can’t exercise
  • Saying you hate exercise
  • Doing exercises so you can look like someone else (e.g., to get Michelle Obama arms)
  • Taking information on the internet about exercise as facts
  • Continuing to exercise the way you did as a high school athlete

If even the word exercise is stress-producing in some way, chances are you have a fixed mindset about exercise. The great news is that you can shift to a growth mindset. It starts with being open to knowing that:

  • No matter how the media defines an ‘exerciser’, exercise has many meanings. If you hate to exercise, opening to a new way of thinking about it can change how you feel about exercise
  • You can exercise, when you know how your body was designed to move well
  • The purpose of exercise is to help your body and brain function as well as they can, not to look and function like someone else.
  • Exercise is a science yet fitness is an unregulated industry so you need to choose your experts carefully
  • When your reasons for exercising change, the way you exercise needs to change too

3. Add mindfulness for more results in less time

In the stress response, your brain detects a threat to your senses of safety, contentment, and/or connection. Whether the threat is real or imagined, within milliseconds your brain automatically signals your body to prepare to move. The fact that your brain can imagine and remember is helpful, but it is also the cause of many unnecessary stress responses in your body. When these stress responses are left unattended, they lead to chronic stress.

Mindfulness is paying attention in the present moment, with curiosity rather than judgement, and kindness rather than criticism. Being present in this particular way lets your brain differentiate between real and imagined threats. It’s not that your brain won’t time travel and trigger stress, it’s that you won’t keep it there by continuing down that road. Mindfulness gets you back to the facts about what is really happening, and reminds you that you are in fact safe, contented, and connected enough to be well now.

Keep in mind, though, that once your body has entered the stressed state, it needs movement to get back to a state of being well. Mindfulness is what turns movement into exercise that will get you back to that state.

When you exercise with your attention in the present, you have access to the most reliable, most personalized information about how to exercise and how much is enough. Presence with exercise saves you time and increases your results. I call this using your Inner Trainer. It takes some training to gain the skill of listening to and trusting your body as you move, but the payoff is more time-efficient, higher-quality exercise that builds your skill of lasting self-motivation for exercise, more than any trainer could. As a bonus, that trust in your body carries over into other stress-reducing habits like reducing emotional eating and developing healthy connections with others.

 4. Move from exercising stress to exercising well

The word exercise literally means to practice and what you practice gets stronger. Using a growth mindset and mindfulness, you can stay aware of when exercise means practicing being stressed or practicing being well. You can tell when you are exercising stress when even the word exercise leads to feeling:

  • Unsafe: afraid you will get injured, have a heart attack or feel embarrassment when you exercise
  • Discontented: exercise leaves you feeling like you don’t have enough time, energy, stamina, strength, or fitness to be ‘successful’ at exercise or get what you want from it.
  • Disconnected: exercise leaves you feeling isolated and ‘not enough’ because you can’t keep up with others or don’t look the way you think you should

Exercising well means you feel:

  • Safe: you know how to move smart, based on the most current, science-based understanding of how your body is designed to move.
  • Contented: you can see through marketing-based or outdated exercises, so that your body feels better, you avoid injury, and you can let go of the feeling you don’t have enough or are not enough.
  • Connected: you know how to be self-motivated and exercise connects you to your own inner confidence. You choose to exercise with someone not because you need to be motivated but because it adds to the enjoyment.

In short, this is exercising well: any amount of time you move the way your body is designed, listening to and trusting your body in each moment, so exercise restores a sense of feeling safe, contented, and connected, shifting you back to the state of being well.

5. Connect your stress sensors with the need to move

The whole point of the stress response is to wake us up to the fact that something is needed so we can get back to the state of being well. This is why knowing all the ways stress looks and feels inside you is key. Those signals wake you up to the fact that you have drifted or been catapulted out of the state of being well and entered the stress zone. By keeping your senses open to how stress feels in your body and looks in your behaviors, you can use it to know when you need to move and think in the ways that get you back to the state of being well.

Summary: a fresh way of thinking about exercise to cure the dis-ease of chronic stress

Solving the chronic stress problem has become even more of a priority this year and that means we need to be able to use exercise to move from stressed to well in more moments of our days. This takes seeing exercise with a fresh new lens, one that opens our minds to new ideas about what exercise does and does not mean, allows us to trust our bodies, and is user-friendly enough to be used as soon as the stress response is triggered. This is how exercise will keep us from hanging out in the stress zone and usher us back into that sweet spot of being well.

Move from exercising stress to exercising well through:

  • Positive experience: knowing how to move smart so you feel and function better now and are more likely to stay motivated to exercise instead of life getting in the way.
  • Passion driven: base what you do on what is most important to you so you tap into that wealth of motivation that sustains you and makes exercise time anything but boring.
  • Presence: shift out of criticism to motivate yourself to exercise and distraction to get it over with, and simply pay attention so any minute you exercise is a time of self-care that completes your solutions to chronic stress.

When you are exercising in this specific way to return to well-being, you are Exercising well.