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6 min read

Managing Stress with Exercise

In the spring of my junior year of high school, I decided to train to be a beach lifeguard.  My goal was not to serve the community or to protect helpless swimmers from vicious ocean rip currents. My sole desire was to meet cute girls at the beach—period.  It didn’t matter that the other lifeguards in training were seasoned, competitive swimmers.  I was on a mission to meet the ladies, and not even an exhausting training swim with kids who could swim a mile without breaking a sweat was going to scare me off.  That feeling lasted until about mile marker one.  At that point I began to feel an extreme ache in my side and an overwhelming desire to throw up.  Hindsight is 20/20, but something tells me that lying on the training pool deck in agony is not all that attractive to the girls I was trying to impress.  My encouragement to you here is simple: don’t make the rookie mistake I made as a young man and over exercise to the point of exhaustion.  Regular exercise has consistently been associated with lower stress levels, and the beautiful thing is, you don’t have to push yourself to the brink of physical exhaustion for the exercise to help reduce stress.

Researchers have found that whether a person exercises at 80 percent or 40 percent of his capacity, the effect on stress is the same as long as he works out for at least twenty to thirty minutes.  In short, there is no correlation between how hard you work out and the stress reducing benefit you receive.  Do you know what this means? It means that my push-it-to-the-brink philosophy as a teenager was, well, nothing more than a teenage philosophy. The idea that you have to kill yourself to get the stress-reducing benefit of exercise is a myth.  You can live a less stressed life if you simply decide to fit twenty to thirty minutes of exercise into your day.  No marathon training here; just moderate exercise such as walking, jogging, bike riding, gardening, or tennis will do the trick.  Focusing on moderate exercise that you actually enjoy will greatly increase the likelihood that you actually follow through with your routine everyday, which is key to the mental health benefits you are looking to produce.  

I’ve created a worksheet to help you think through how to start an exercise routine that will help you manage your stressful life.  You can find the worksheet on my website at The worksheet will help you implement the following helpful strategies into your daily routine:


  1. Reinforcements.  Any good exercise plan will include rewards for following through.  Be sure to think of ways you can reinforce yourself daily, weekly, and monthly for complying with your plan. Your self-rewards might look something like this:
    •   Daily:  “Every day after I exercise, I will treat myself to a fat-free mocha from Starbucks.”
    •   Weekly:  “For every week that I follow through with my exercise plan, I will treat myself to a pedicure or lunch with my spouse.”
    •   Monthly:  “For every month that I comply with my exercise plan, I will buy myself a new DVD or a new outfit.”
  1. Persistence. There is no doubt in my mind that you will encounter obstacles as you attempt to formulate and implement your exercise program.  For starters, you are going to tell yourself that you just don’t have time to sustain an exercise program.  Some of you might encounter motivation problems. Others might have trouble determining which kind of exercise to choose.  No matter what may try to prevent you from exercising, you can follow through with your program if you anticipate obstacles and formulate ways to address the resistance beforehand.  I’ve included a section on the worksheet where you can troubleshoot how you will respond to roadblocks you may encounter.
  2. Relaxation.  A solid body of research has demonstrated a strong link between exercise and relaxation—  After you exercise, make sure you reserve time to lie down for a few minutes, close your eyes, and enjoy the floating effect of the endorphins you just released.  This will help you get as much stress-busting potential from your exercise program as possible.
  3. Fun.  No matter what your exercise plan ends up looking like, make sure you engage in activities you enjoy.  You’ll be much more successful following through on your program if you are doing things you like.  By the way, you don’t have to perform the same activity every day.  If you walk on Monday, ride your bike on Tuesday.  If you garden on Wednesday, swim on Thursday.  Whatever you do, have fun with it!