Erin Leyba LCSW, Ph.D.

Joyful Parenting

7 Exercises That Reduce Stress Better Than "Trying to Relax"

Science suggests that 20 mins of focused action can be better than just relaxing

Posted Jan 30, 2017

Research suggests that most Americans suffer from moderate to high levels of stress, adult stress levels are increasing (American Psychological Association, 2015; Clay, 2011), and a sizable portion of adults report that they do not feel they are doing enough to manage their stress (American Psychological Association, 2015). It’s essential to have tools to cope with challenges, especially because stress has been linked to higher mortality rate, depression, anger, fatigue, muscle tension, headache, and upset stomach, and anxiety/panic (Anxiety and Depression Association of America, n. d.; Clay, 2011).

When you’re run-down, burnt out, or exhausted, someone may say, “Just relax” or “take it down a thousand.” But does that really work?

Research suggests that a number of forms of focused action can reduce stress just as effectively, if not more than, just “trying to relax.” It's hard to do something different when you're in fight or flight mode, anxious or worried, or stuck on a hamster wheel of to-do lists. You may be so exhausted that the last thing you want to do is "more" of anything. But sometimes willing yourself out of a stress cycle just doesn't work. If you can take 20-minute action-steps to build wellness, bring in some light, get out of your head, and tend to your emotions, it can help you feel better faster.

Here are seven 20-minute science-tested activities to reduce stress:

Walk in Nature, Preferably Near Water, for 20 Minutes

Source: halfpoint/DepositPhotos

Research suggests that exposure to green space may reduce depression, anxiety, and stress (Beyer et al., 2014).  Barton and Pretty (2010) found that exposure to “green exercise,” or “activity in the presence of nature,” resulted in improvements in self-esteem and mood, with the benefits being even greater in settings with water. One study showed that walking in a natural setting for 90 minutes significantly reduced activity in the part of the brain linked to mental illness (Bratman et al., 2015). Another study found that taking a walk for 30 minutes just 3 times per week at lunch increased inactive workers’ enthusiasm and sense of relaxation and reduced nervousness (Thøgersen-Ntoumani et al., 2015). 

Journal or Write for 20 Minutes

Write for 20 minutes about a positive experience you've had--research suggests this can enhance positive mood, improve health and mental health outcomes, and lower stress levels for months after you do the exercise (Burton and King, 2004; Baikie, Geerligs, and Wilhelm, 2012). Or write about a very stressful experience for 20 minutes (and how you overcame it), as research suggests this can improve your health and mental health outcomes (Smyth, Stone, & Hurewitz, 1999). Alternatively, write down negative thoughts, visualize throwing them in the garbage, then actually throw them in the garbage, which can help you release negative thoughts and feelings (Brinol, Gasco, Petty, & Horcajo, 2012).

Feel or Express Gratitude for 20 Minutes

Try an app like Gratitude Diary or Attitudes of Gratitude or write in a gratitude journal. An appreciation for aspects of your life can result in positive changes to your brain (Hoffman, 2015), energy level, enthusiasm (Emmons and McCullough, 2003) and mood (Lai, 2014). Gratitude is also related to improved optimism and resilience, and has the strongest links to mental health and satisfaction with life of any personality trait (Emmons and Stern, 2013). 

Do a Small Act of Service or Kindness for 20 Minutes

Visit or deliver flowers to an elderly neighbor, shovel snow from someone’s driveway, write an old friend a letter, or make soup for a friend who is sick. The benefits of volunteering include improved physical, mental, and emotional health; lower stress levels; a deeper connection to others and stronger sense of purpose (United Health Group, 2013); and greater happiness (Borgonovi, 2008).

Source: MichaelJung/DepositPhotos

Meditate or Do Progressive Muscle Relaxation for 20 Minutes

Meditate by drawing your attention to your breath. When you get distracted, remind yourself, “All sounds return to the breath. All thoughts return to the breath. All feelings return to the breath. All distractions return to the breath.” Meditation has a moderate effect on alleviating symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress, and pain; and improving psychological well-being (Goyal et al., 2014; Holzel et al., 2011). Research suggests that both meditation and progressive muscle relaxation are more effective at decreasing anxiety than just trying to relax (Rausch, Gramling, Auerbach, 2006). 

Use Diaphragmatic Breathing with Positive Imagery for 20 Minutes (or less)

Diaphragmatic breathing, shown to decrease stress (McKay, 2012), involves inhaling slowly and deeply through the nose into the bottom of the lungs, drawing the air as deep into the lungs as possible. After taking a full breath, hold it for a moment, then exhale in a slow and controlled way (Kulur et al., 2009). Using diaphragmatic breathing along with positive imagery (thinking about a time or place where you have experienced the positive feelings of enjoyment, care, love, peace, or appreciation and focusing on it) has been shown to reduce stress more than just sitting quietly (Childre and Rozman, 2005).

Engage in a Hobby or Do Something Fun for 20 Minutes

Engaging in hobbies, interests, and leisure activities lowers stress, improves interest and mood, and lowers heart rates (Zawadzki, Smyth, and Costigan, 2015). Make a list of activities you would really enjoy for 20 minutes (brisk walk or bike ride, crossword puzzle, knitting, listening to a podcast, reading a magazine, baking, etc.) ahead of time so when you have time, you can fit them in.

Copyright Erin Leyba, 2017

Erin Leyba, LCSW, PhD is a counselor in Chicago’s western suburbs. . She is the author of Joy Fixes for Weary Parents: 101 Ideas for Overcoming Fatigue, Stress, and Guilt - and Building a Life You Love (New World Library), now available for pre-order. Join her on Facebook or sign up to get free articles on parenting with mindfulness and joy.


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