Exercise is one of the best strategies for combating stress, and it can also improve other aspects of your health.

Persistent stress over time can increase your risk for several chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.

In contrast, exercising regularly can help reduce your stress levels, improve your health, and reduce the risk of chronic diseases.

According to research, as little as 20 to 30 minutes of cardio can help you feel less stressed.

Physical activity improves your body’s ability to use oxygen and also improves blood flow. Both of these changes have a direct effect on your brain.

Exercise also reduces your levels of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol and increases your brain’s production of endorphins, according to Harvard Health.

Endorphins are the feel-good neurotransmitters responsible for the feeling called runner’s high. This is the sense of well-being and euphoria that many people experience after exercise.

Physical activity can also help take your mind off your worries. Leaving a stressful situation to go exercise can provide a much-needed break.

Also, the repetitive motions in exercise help you focus on your body rather than your mind.

By concentrating on the rhythm of your movements, you experience many of the same benefits of meditation while working out. Focusing on a single physical task activates calmness and clarity.

Some people notice an improvement in their mood immediately after a workout. Those feelings tend to build up over time.

You’ll likely notice increased feelings of well-being as you stay committed to a consistent exercise routine over a few days, weeks, and months.

In addition to having the direct effect of reducing your stress levels, regular exercise promotes optimum health in other ways.

Among some of its additional benefits, exercise can help:

  • strengthen your muscles and bones
  • strengthen your immunity, which can decrease your
    risk for illness and infection
  • lower your blood pressure, sometimes as much as
    some antihypertensive medications
  • boost levels of HDL (good) cholesterol in your blood
  • improve your blood circulation
  • improve your ability to control weight
  • help you sleep better at night
  • boost your energy
  • improve your self-image

You don’t need to be a marathon runner or elite athlete to experience stress relief from exercise.

Consider taking a brisk walk around the block, going for a swim, or doing a 10-minute smartphone workout in your living room. Just about any exercise will help.

For example, consider moderate aerobic exercises such as:

  • biking
  • brisk walking
  • jogging
  • swimming
  • water aerobics
  • playing tennis or racquetball
  • dancing
  • rowing

When it comes to muscle-strengthening exercises, consider weightlifting or activities with resistance bands.

Even vigorous gardening or choosing to take the stairs rather than the elevator can give you an emotional lift.

Be sure to choose an activity you actually enjoy. If you’re not comfortable in the water, don’t choose swimming as your main activity. Likewise, if the thought of running makes you uncomfortable or anxious, training for a 5K race won’t help relieve your stress.

Try a variety of activities until you find some you enjoy. When you’re having fun, you’ll be more likely to stick with your workout routine.

Working out with someone else can also add to the stress-busting benefits of exercise. Sharing it with family members or friends can make it feel more like fun and less like work.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity every week. It suggests doing one 30-minute workout session at least 5 days a week.

Other research suggests 75 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity exercise is a good equivalent.

If you’re short on time and can’t fit in a full 30-minute session, try three 10-minute workouts during the day instead. This works almost as well as doing 30 minutes at once.

The AHA also encourages incorporating at least two sessions of muscle-strengthening activities into your weekly routine.

Try to give all your major muscle groups — your arms, shoulders, chest, back, abdomen, legs, abdominals, and other core muscles — a good workout.

If you’re new to an exercise program, take your time and gradually build up your physical activity level.

For example, your doctor might suggest you begin with 20 minutes of aerobic exercise 3 days a week and increase gradually from there.

Here’s how to get moving with a sustainable exercise regimen to beat stress.

How to start

Begin with easy, fun exercise activities you enjoy. Launching into a very ambitious workout routine from day one could lead to burnout, and you might end up dropping the routine entirely, according to the National Center for Health Research.

Plan your exercises and set aside time for yourself. Scheduling a routine will eliminate feelings of stress that you should be doing something else. This is time you set aside just for yourself.

Invite friends or family to work out with you. It’ll help you keep each other motivated. For example, you could join an exercise class with a friend.

Walking is a great starting point for many people. If you want to do more intense exercise, you can work your way up to it gradually.

Here are some sample exercise plans from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to get you started.

SMART goals

Set up goals you can track, achieve, and feel proud of.

SMART goal setting is a great way to stay on track with your exercise routine, according to the American Council on Exercise. SMART stands for:

  • Specific: Define it as clearly as possible. A goal like “lose weight” or “get healthy” is too general.
  • Measurable: Put numbers to it possible.
  • Attainable: It has to be realistic, or you’ll never achieve it.
  • Relevant: Make sure it’s what you want for yourself, not what others think you should do.
  • Time-bound: Set yourself a deadline.

Here’s an example of a SMART goal: “I will lose 7 pounds (3.1 kg) in 2 months.”

Once you have an overarching SMART goal like the one above, set a few action-oriented SMART goals you’ll achieve every week. For the example goal above, these could be:

  • I will go for five 2-mile (3.2-km) walks each week.
  • I will do 10 push-ups every day before I start work.
  • I will do one yoga class using a smartphone app every Saturday morning.

How to stay motivated

It’s normal to feel unmotivated sometimes. The trick is to use ways of thinking that help you get out of the rut and keep going.

Here are a few things you can tell yourself to get past common excuses you might find yourself making, according to the CDC:

  • “I don’t have enough time”: Monitor your schedule for 1 week and identify at least three 30-minute slots where you could fit in exercise.
  • “My to-do list is already too long”: Make appointments with yourself for exercise every week. Put them on your calendar and block off that time, then show up.
  • “I’m too tired”: Schedule exercise for times during the week when you know you’ll feel more energetic.
  • “I have little kids”: Organize a babysitting exchange with other friends or acquaintances who also have kids. When your kids are older, consider going out for a walk, hike, or bike ride as a family.

It’s a good idea to ask your doctor what types of exercise are right for you and how much — especially if you have a chronic disease like a heart condition, diabetes, arthritis, or high blood pressure.

It’s also important to assess the sources of stress and address them if needed. In addition to exercising and practicing other stress relief techniques, you might want to seek help from a psychologist or other healthcare professional to get at the root of your stress.

If you’re out of shape or new to exercising, ask your doctor for guidance on what forms of exercise are right for you.

They can help you develop a safe and effective workout routine while taking your specific condition and fitness level into account. Discuss appropriate intensity levels with your doctor.

You can enjoy the stress-relieving benefits of exercise even if you feel out of shape or don’t consider yourself athletic.

Regular exercise can help you feel less stressed, anxious, and depressed and more relaxed, optimistic, and happy.