• The 4 Best Exercises for Stress and Anxiety During the Holidays

The 4 Best Exercises for Stress and Anxiety During the Holidays

The holidays are a time for family gatherings, celebrations, and unfortunately, stress. Extra expenses, pressure to buy the perfect gifts, and travel can all contribute to feeling overwhelmed. During this time of year, it’s often necessary to find ways to reduce pressure and tension in your everyday life.

Exercise, meditation, and even changing your diet can help to reduce stress and pressure during the holiday season. Don’t wait until the New Year—now is the time to jumpstart your health! Making small changes today can help you enjoy the holidays more and allow you to hit the ground running for improving your health in 2020.

There are people who never miss a workout, but sadly the percentage of those people is low. Studies show that only 18-25% of people regularly exercise. That leaves more than 75% of the population that don’t and are missing out on the benefits of endorphins—stress-fighting hormones that are released when your heart rate increases and help to elevate mood.

These four types of exercise will keep you calm, cool and collected throughout the holiday season.

1.   Yoga

Yoga is a low-impact form of exercise and can greatly improve your overall health. It combines stretching and strengthening exercises with breathing to create a physical and mental discipline that anyone can benefit from. Yoga helps to increase flexibility, boost performance, improve balance, lower blood pressure and reduce stress. There are many types of yoga practices, including hatha, vinyasa, bikram, kundalini, iyengar, ashtanga, anusara and restorative. Every yoga class has three parts: the poses, breathing and relaxation.

Yoga is good for all ages, but if you’re a beginner, start slowly and with the guidance of a trained instructor. If you have an increased risk of blood clots, herniated disks, glaucoma, severe balance problems, severe osteoporosis or are pregnant, Mayo Clinic guidelines suggest checking in with your doctor before starting a program.

2.   Pilates

Pilates was developed by the late Joseph Pilates and has evolved into a fitness craze in gyms and clubs across the country. The series of stretches and strengthening exercises performed on a mat or with equipment may seem intimidating to a beginner, but they are wonderful for toning, lowering stress, strengthening the core muscles, and improving posture and overall athletic performance. It is embraced by the dance world (Clara, Joseph’s wife, was a ballerina) and also by professional athletes Jake Arrieta, who claim the improvement in core development from Pilates helps them improve their overall performance and reduce the risk of injuries.

Pilates is good for all ages and low impact on the body, which makes it easy on your joints and can drive great results. As with yoga, a certified instructor is key. There are two different types of Pilates classes: mat and reformer. Mat classes that are done with a mat, light weights, and possibly a Pilates ring or small inflated ball. In a reformer class, you’ll work in numerous positions on a specialized piece of equipment that slides with spring resistance. All exercises focus on balance, core and strength. Many people rely on Pilates to help manage back pain and injuries.

3.   Walking

The most common form of exercise is walking. According to the CDC, 6 out of 10 Americans report walking for at least 10 minutes a day. It is one of the easiest ways to sneak in exercise and as little as 30 minutes daily can help improve your health and lower stress.

Just putting one foot in front of the other is the basic idea of walking but keep in mind that toes should be pointed forward and arms should swing gently in opposition to the feet. Keep chest lifted and shoulders relaxed when possible. Activity trackers and carrying a smartphone can help you stay on track with getting the recommended 10,000 daily steps to improve overall health. With regular walking, simple stretches should also be performed.

Walking is low impact and doesn’t require any special equipment. Plus, walking is free of charge!

4.   High-Intensity Aerobic Workouts

Although lower intensity exercise like yoga, Pilates, and walking help reduce stress, high-intensity cardio exercises may be even better at boosting endorphins and elevating mood. High-intensity exercise has been associated with a higher caloric burn and has become popular with group classes offered by many boutique fitness centers.

High-intensity interval training, commonly referred to as HIIT, combines intervals of rigorous cardio bursts with alternating strength training movement. Many high-intensity cardio exercises include jumping jacks, running, burpees and box jumps but may increase joint impact. Rowing, cycling and swimming are excellent low-impact, high-intensity exercises without the joint stressors.

In any group exercise class, form and alignment is important. Be warned that a base level of stability should be practiced before jumping into these types of classes. Working with a personal trainer to establish a base level of fitness is a great idea and may help reduce the risk of injuries. In fact, one study found that 73.5% of the 132 survey respondents experienced an injury while engaging in CrossFit-style classes. An injury could add even more stress to a busy holiday season, so make safety a priority.

Meditation and Breathing to Relieve Stress

While getting up and moving can help fight stress, so can sitting down and taking a deep breath. Numerous studies have shown that meditation and breathing exercises can help reduce pressure and tension.

There are many ways to meditate, including meditation apps, guided meditations on YouTube, and in-person classes. You can also start simply on your own, by counting your breaths, visualizing, and listening to music.

  • Counting breaths: Set the timer for one minute. Next, count each inhale and exhale as one breath. Try to breathe fully and slowly. What’s interesting is the amount of breaths you take during that minute directly correlates to your heart rate. If you have 10 breaths, it’s likely that your heart rate will be close to 100 bpm. Continue counting breaths until your total count is close to 6 or 7 breaths to help calm the body and reduce stress.
  • Visualization: Sit tall in a chair with your feet on the ground and spine straight and breathe while you picture joyful memories or a restful spot. Many people visualize a beach, forest or mountain. Be observant of the details of the scene, including the colors, smells, sounds, and people or wildlife that are present.
  • Listening to music: Unplugging from the world and plugging into your headset may be a good option as well. Listening to calming music while focusing on your breath can be quite powerful and offers many beginners a good place to start. Whether you choose the sounds of spa music or chill ambient beats, music helps the body calm down and lowers your stress level.

Dietary Changes to Fight Stress

Believe it or not, there are foods that increase stress on the body and those that help reduce it. Foods or supplements high in magnesium, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids show great promise in helping to reduce anxious thoughts. Plant-based adaptogens like ashwagandha may also help. They have been shown to boost brain function, lower blood sugar and cortisol levels.

  • Magnesium:  Magnesium may help with restful sleep, which can help with insomnia, which can contribute to stress. Foods that are high in magnesium include the great greens: swiss chard, kale and spinach as well as legumes, seeds, nuts and whole grains.
  • Omega-3s: One of the most stressful jobs is being a resident in medical school. In a study of medical residents, increased omega-3 supplements helped lower inflammation and anxiety. Salmon, chia seeds, sardines, and walnuts are all great sources of omega-3s.
  • Ashwagandha: This adaptogen has been shown to help lower cortisol levels in the body. Cortisol is responsible for the body’s “fight or flight” response.
  • Chamomile: Chamomile has been studied for its effects on both anxiety symptoms and sleep with positive results. A cup of chamomile tea before bed during busy times may help you wind down and get some much-needed rest.

While you deck the halls, squeeze in holiday cheer, and buy presents this season, keep in mind that exercising, being more mindful, and establishing good eating habits can help you enjoy the holidays with less stress. ‘Tis the season for your jumpstart on health to begin!


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Andrea Metcalf is one of the nation’s top fitness experts and best-selling author. She started helping people achieve optimum health in Chicago and around the country more than 3 decades ago. She has appeared on the NBC Today Show, Steve Harvey, USA Today, Oprah.com, Reuters Health Report, More.com, Better TV and local Chicago stations. She is a certified personal trainer, nutritionist, Pilates and Yoga instructor.

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