If you’ve been diagnosed with heart disease, there are a number of stressors to manage on an ongoing basis. Dealing with more frequent doctor visits, getting used to new medical treatments, and adjusting to lifestyle changes are just some of the factors that may cause you to experience stress and anxiety when you have a heart condition.
Fortunately, you can take some simple steps to help relieve your stress that can help your heart as well. One of the best strategies to combat stress and reduce your risk factors for heart disease is exercise.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), physical activity can improve your quality of life mentally as well as physically, and can lower your overall stress level. Exercising regularly has been proven to have a positive effect on mood by relieving the tension, anxiety, anger, and mild depression that often go hand-in-hand with stress.
Physically active adults have a lower risk of depression and loss of mental functioning with age. The Mayo Clinic reports that exercise can also improve your confidence as well as your sleep, both of which can be negatively affected by stress, depression, and anxiety.
How Does Exercise Help With Stress?
The AHA notes that physical activity increases the flow of oxygen into and out of your body, which has a direct effect on your brain. Exercise also increases your brain’s production of endorphins. Endorphins are the “feel-good” neurotransmitters that are responsible for the coveted “runner’s high”—a sense of well-being and euphoria that many experience from exercise.
Another way that physical activity helps you move beyond the day’s aggravations is through repeated motions that promote focus on your body, not your mind. By concentrating exclusively on the rhythm of your exercise, you experience many of the same benefits of meditation while working out. Focusing on a single physical task can produce a sense of energy and optimism, which can help provide calmness and clarity.
Some people report noticing an improvement in their mood directly after a workout. Better yet, these feelings don’t end there, but generally become cumulative over time. Most people note increased feelings of well-being in the following weeks and months that they spend developing an exercise routine.
In addition to having a direct effect on your stress levels, regular exercise promotes optimum health in several other ways as well, which may also help to moderate your stress indirectly. By improving your physical wellness and helping with physical function in relation to your heart condition, you’ll have less to feel stressed about.
Here are just some of the additional benefits of exercise that the AHA identifies:
- strengthens immunity, which can decrease the risk of developing heart disease
- lowers blood pressure, offering equivalence in reduction to that achieved by some antihypertensive medications
- boosts levels of good cholesterol and improved blood circulation, which reduces risk of heart disease
- improves ability to control weight
- increases optimism and enthusiasm while decreasing anxiety and depression
- boosts energy and improves self-image
How Much Exercise Do You Need to Reduce Stress?
The AHA recommends trying to stick with a half hour of moderate activity, such as brisk walking, five days a week. If you’re short on time, and can’t fit in a full 30-minute session, three 10-minute workouts have been shown to work almost as well as 30 minutes at once.
Working out with someone else to add an extra stress-buster. Sharing an activity with family and friends can make exercise feel more like fun and less like work.
Be sure to build up your physical activity level gradually if you’re new to an exercise program. Most experts advise starting with 20 minutes of exercise three days a week, and increasing gradually from there.
What Types of Exercise Help With Stress?
In addition to deciding on the right amount and level of physical activity, NIH recommends selecting a specific type of exercise to focus on as well. But which type should you choose?
You need not be a marathoner or elite athlete to experience stress relief from exercise. Almost any kind of exercise can be helpful, from aerobic exercises like biking, jogging, or swimming, to strengthening and stretching exercises like yoga, tai chi, or lifting light to moderate weights. Even gardening, or taking the stairs rather than driving, can give you an emotional lift.
Since any type of exercise can increase your fitness and decrease your stress, it’s important to choose an activity that you enjoy rather than dread. If you don’t like the water, don’t become a swimmer. If the thought of running makes you anxious, then training for a 5K won’t help relieve your stress. Think about activities you can participate in that will be the most fun for you—that way, you’ll be more likely to stick with them.
If you haven’t been regularly active before, you should check with your doctor for guidance on what forms of exercise are right for your specific condition and fitness level. However, even those who don’t consider themselves to be athletic or who feel out of shape can find exercise to be instrumental in stress management—as well as in helping to manage their heart condition.