Human beings are fragile, emotional creatures—personally, I can attest to crying at Pixar movies, cursing in rush hour traffic, and laughing uncontrollably at puppy videos. But when it comes to fitness, that softness starts to fade. Some invisible switch flips in our brains, and we start treating our bodies like machines. We increase our heart rate to drip sweat, tear muscle to rebuild it stronger, push our limits to burn calories—all on purpose.
Working up a sweat has been demonstrated to lower blood pressure, release endorphins, strengthen the immune system, improve memory, combat stress, and make you feel happier. So what happens if exercise is stressing you out and making you anxious—or you’re just not getting the results you hoped for? Studies suggest it’s less about what exercise you’re doing and more about how you exercise that makes the difference. Here are some ways to rethink your approach:
1. Use stress to your advantage.
While chronic stress can be detrimental to both your mind and body, short-term stress is great for energy boost and focus. John Ratey, M.D., an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, says that the impact of small doses of stress on the brain is similar to the way vaccines affect the immune system, making us stronger. But it’s how you respond to stress that is important. “If you react passively or if there is simply no way out, stress can become damaging,” he says.
After having an argument with my partner, I recently laced up my running shoes to head out the door. I didn’t have any specific goal in mind—I just knew I was mad, stressed, and I needed to get out and move. I ended up running five miles (when I can usually only run three) and I could feel the tension melt away with every step. I came home feeling empowered, motivated, and ready to tackle the issue.
Anxiety and stress can draw us into ourselves, close us off from the world, and make us combative, but exercising as a response to anxiety has helped me be a better mother, carried me through grief, and quite possibly saved my marriage. It isn’t a cure-all, but it can be used as a great way to respond to stress by turning your tension into progress.
2. Remember that class isn’t always a fit.
Parties, in theory, are fun—but we’ve all been to at least one party where we’d rather be cleaning the bottom of a dumpster with a toothbrush than talking to Kylie’s new boyfriend about cryptocurrency. Well, the same goes for workouts.
Having fun is essential to fitness success and overall well-being, so if you absolutely loathe Zumba, Why on earth are you still going? The stress of forcing yourself to exercise can cancel out any benefits exercise offers, so to benefit from your workout, you should find an activity or class you love (or at least wouldn’t rather dumpster dive to avoid). Not surprisingly, fit might come down to personality. Research suggests that introverts and extroverts respond differently to dopamine and stimuli.
Extroverts enjoy external stimulation and feel energized in social situations, while introverts can leave feeling overstimulated and drained. If you’re an extrovert, you’ll likely prefer high-intensity, social exercise classes (like spinning or Zumba), while an introvert might prefer calmer, slower, less social workouts (yoga, tai chi).
3. Give your body what it craves.
When choosing a workout, step back to consider the ways you move habitually throughout your day. When our bodies perform repeated actions, they can start to develop chronic physical and emotional conditions over time. If you spend your entire, stressful day sitting in an office chair, and after work, head straight to the bike saddle, you run the risk of exacerbating chronic issues—tight hips, hunched shoulders, tense back muscles—as well as triggering the same emotions you feel in that posture, like anxiety or helplessness.
Instead of doing more of the same, try something different: Find activities that move your body in different ways to retain full mobility and correct muscular imbalances and tightness. Give yourself a different way of being in your body—and notice how different you begin to feel.
4. Consider dropping the data.
Using technology in workouts is generally an awesome motivator. But as a Spin instructor at a studio with a metrics leaderboard, I see how it occasionally shifts my riders’ experience from release to full-blown aggression. We become more dependent on our devices to tell us what to do—instead of listening to our own bodies and adjusting our plans accordingly.
This constant reliance on digital feedback may be producing sustained anxiety or chronic stress, which activates our fight-or-flight response and is detrimental to our health and well-being. In this case, exercise becomes a stressor, not a stress reliever.
When we pay too much attention to the numbers, we’re more prone to over-exercise and less likely to notice our physical discomfort threshold. This leaves us vulnerable to injury. The stress of competition can also prevent us from regulating ourselves and can leave us anxious and tense. If you can’t adjust your pace because you’ll lose your place on the leaderboard, then perhaps it’s time to turn off the technology so you can hear your body speak.
Of course, there’s no question that exercise is beneficial overall. But studies do suggest that how you exercise has an impact on both the physical and emotional benefits of physical activity, so you need to be able to give yourself permission to control your pace and your routine. Vary your workouts, turn off your technology if it’s not serving you, and rediscover the joy of moving.
Samantha Parsons is a half-marathon runner and patriarchy smasher. When she’s not freelance writing, educating. and training, she’s using her Masters from SUNY to advocate for social change. You can find her Tweeting or on Facebook.