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by Michele Shapiro
Updated September 28, 2022
Even in anxious times, it’s critically important to preserve habits that boost immunity and help mitigate stress. Yes, that includes exercise. And though we may not feel like working out when stressed out, it’s one of the best things you can do for your body and brain.
Exercise delivers a one-two punch by short-circuiting the stress response in two ways: First, it triggers the release of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which nourishes cell growth. Second, it triggers the release of endorphins such as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, brain chemicals that enhance feelings of well-being, ease muscle tension and improve sleep.
How much exercise do you need to do in a week to help mitigate chronic stress? Experts recommend five 30-minute sessions a week, and while that may seem difficult without an instructor to guide you or an elliptical machine’s motivating readout, we’ve got five ways to gain (or maintain) strength and increase your heart rate at home, without having to crowd your space with bulky equipment.
Works: Core, shoulders, arms, glutes
The perfect way to plank? Lie face-down on a soft surface such as an area rug and plant hands directly under shoulders, slightly wider than shoulder-width. Ground toes into the floor and squeeze glutes to stabilize your body. Look at a spot on the floor about a foot in front of you to neutralize your neck, and hold the position for 20 seconds. Try adding 10 seconds every time you do the move.
Not there yet? Try this. Lie face-down and place forearms on the floor with elbows aligned below shoulders and arms parallel to your body at shoulder width. Now lift your body into a plank position, grounding your toes into the floor and squeezing your glutes. Hold for 20 seconds, and try for an additional 10 each time you attempt the forearm plank.
Works: Arms, core, lower body
While you’re face-down on a soft surface, why not try some push-ups? The total-body move can easily be modified. For a standard push-up, place hands firmly on the floor, directly under shoulders. Ground toes into the floor and squeeze your abdominals. Engage glutes and hamstrings along the back of the leg and flatten your back so your body is neutral and straight. Keeping eyes focused a few feet in front of you, slowly lower your body until your chest is level with your elbows. Exhale as you push back to starting position. Repeat for 10-20 reps or as many as you can do with good form.
Not there yet? Try this. Stand a few feet away from a bare wall. Lean forward and place hands on the wall in front of you, slightly wider than shoulder-width. Bend and straighten arms to complete one push-up. Start with 10 and gradually build to 20.
Works: Arms, legs, lower back, hands, wrists
The brain-healthy benefits of a daily yoga practice are too plentiful to mention here but include potentially increasing cognitive skills, reducing depression and anxiety, and improving concentration. For Downward Dog, start in Tabletop position on hands and knees. Stack shoulders directly over wrists and place hands at shoulder-width. Spread fingers wide and press down firmly. Tuck your toes while engaging your abs and lift hips so knees come off the floor. Reach sit bones to the ceiling as legs straighten. (Keep knees slightly bent if it’s more comfortable.) Hold the pose for only as long as you can without pain in the wrists (aim for 10-20 seconds) and return to hands and knees.
Turning up the music and shaking it like no one’s watching is not only a good way to work up a sweat — some research suggests that channeling your inner choreographer may help improve focus
Vigorous cleaning can burn calories and might also improve focus, since a September 2017 study published in the Lancet found that doing household chores is as effective as working out when it comes to lowering heart disease risk and extending your life. So, what cleaning tasks provide the most efficient workouts? Dusting, which entails a fair amount of reaching and stooping for at least 30 minutes, will work your arms, legs and abs. Vacuuming also works arms and legs, and a half-hour of pushing and pulling the machine over rugs and up and down stairs is as effective as 10 minutes on an elliptical machine.
Check out these Denise Austin videos for illustrations of some of the moves detailed here and more exercises you can do on your own.
• “Stress Relief: The Role of Exercise in Stress Management,” American College of Sports Medicine’s Health and Fitness Journal, May/June 2013. In this review, multiple studies are analyzed to show the negative effect stress can have on health and how physical exercise can be used as a stress management tool. The researchers suggest that 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week can help to manage stress. Read the full review.
• “Dance for neuroplasticity: A descriptive systematic review,” Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, January 2019. In this review, researchers analyzed eight studies showing the positive effects that dancing can have on the brain. There is evidence that dancing can increase hippocampal and gray matter volume and improve memory, attention and body balance. Read a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)
• “The effect of physical activity on mortality and cardiovascular disease in 130,000 people from 17 high-income, middle-income, and low-income countries: the PURE study,” The Lancet, September 2017. Researchers measured the total physical activity, including recreational and non-recreational activities, in 130,843 participants (ages 35 to 70) from 17 countries. Following an average follow-up of 6.9 years, researchers compared the mortality and incidence of major cardiovascular disease of participants. Results showed that higher physical activity was associated with lower risk of mortality and incidence of major cardiovascular disease. Recreational and non-recreational physical activities were shown to be equivalent in reducing risk of mortality and major cardiovascular disease. Read a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)