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Turn Up Mindful Exercise to Turn Down Stress

Amplify the tension-taming benefits of exercise with these tips for raising physical and mental awareness in your sessions.

Mindful exercise for stress relief

It’s no secret that 2020 took a toll on Americans’ mental health. According to one survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 40% of respondents—from a pool of more than 5,400—experienced a negative mental or behavioral health condition in the month of June alone; problems included anxiety and depression (CDC 2020). And the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America™ 2020 survey of more than 3,000 adults found that tension hit parents and people of color particularly hard, with many respondents stressing about the coronavirus, the economy and the government’s response to the pandemic (APA 2020).

Through all the ups and downs, exercise has continued to stick as a way of countering stress. Previous scientific studies, including at least one meta-review (Ashdown-Franks et al. 2019), have shown that movement can alleviate symptoms of mental disorders, helping to combat everything from depression and anxiety to substance abuse. Research on coronavirus-related stress, in particular, suggests a link between exercise and stress: those who keep exercise up and screen time down have better outcomes against the negative mental health effects of the pandemic, compared with those who move less (Meyer et al. 2020).

Exercise Is Good for Stress

Exercise is good for stress

The stress benefits of exercise are both mental and physical.

Physical activity has benefits for our mindset both instantly and down the line. “Exercise provides an immediate emotional response, as it releases endorphins; allows us to manage cortisol, the stress hormone; and gives us a sense of joy,” says Hillary Cauthen, PsyD, executive board member for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. “Consistent exercise also lowers the heart rate and allows for focus and better sleep.”

When we’re in a stressed-out state, our bodies physically react by going into fight-or-flight mode, triggering increases in heart rate and respiratory rate, says Diane Gill, PhD, professor in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “When [stress is] prolonged, that really takes a toll, and it goes beyond increased heart rate and blood pressure, as the adrenaline rush makes us more susceptible to major diseases and a weakened immune system,” she explains. “Exercise, however, builds up our cardio system and physical resilience, so we’re better able to deal with that stress and reach a more balanced state or homeostasis.”

Physical activity helps us work through the fight-or-flight state, adds Gill, and it leads to hormonal changes that may temper stress even more (Hackney 2006). To top it off, Gill says, working out can serve as a distraction from the daily grind.

In short, the stress benefits of exercise are both mental and physical (Cohen, Murphy &
Prather 2019; Singh, Sachdev & Singh 2019; Jackson 2013). “In the mind, exercise enhances feel-good chemicals and balances brain structures that may be under- or overfiring. In the body, exercise reduces stress hormones,” says Jennifer Carter, PhD, sports psychologist and associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Ohio State University’s Jameson Crave Sports Medicine Institute.

See also: 10-Minute Natural Stress Relief

Ways to Enhance the Benefits

As the evidence shows, a bout of exercise in itself can reduce stress levels, but fitness pros can amplify the positive effects. With these strategies from exercise and stress researchers, you can help clients lower their stress levels both in training sessions and outside the gym.

Begin With Deep Breathing

“Most of us aren’t taught how to intentionally breathe and how to control and regulate the breath,” says Cauthen. “So start workouts with a breathing process to get clients in a calm state.”

After this, talk to clients about how the body might respond to higher-intensity work (say, with a quickened breath and pounding heart) and how to use the breath in these moments. For example, offer runners the practice of breathing in for four steps, then breathing out for the next four.

“Once clients understand the breath, then how to control it, they can better maintain the work,” Cauthen adds. “This is definitely a confidence booster, as it allows [them] to feel in control, and this enhances the focus for them as well.”

Gill agrees. “Controlled breathing is one of the best stress management exercises,” she says. “The respiration rate speeds up when we’re stressed, and if you can get your breathing rate under control and slowed down, then the other physical and mental responses will follow.”

By counting or adding words with each inhalation and each exhalation, you can give clients something to focus on as they exercise, says Gill. For example, you can have them inhale for 1, 2, 3, 4, then exhale for 1, 2, 3, 4. Or try saying, “Breathe in energy; breathe out stress.” You can do this at the start of the session, to close out the workout, or even at points throughout the session if a client needs a mental or physical break.

For strength training, emphasize exhaling on the lift and inhaling on the release, suggests Carter. Paying attention to the breath during weight training can help clients connect with pace and technique, she adds.

Ask About Emotions

A simple “How are you feeling today?” can go a long way. But Cauthen recommends taking it further by asking, “How are you feeling, and how do you want to work through that?” Some people like to exert themselves physically at a high level when they’re super stressed, because afterward they feel a cathartic calmness, she says. Others may want something slower and more relaxed.

“If someone is anxious, doing high-intensity interval training or another fast-paced workout can lead to restrictive energy, so sometimes it’s better to do slow-paced work [to bring relief],” says Cauthen. Talk to clients about what might work best for them in each session.

Asking clients what they want to gain mentally and emotionally from a workout can also help you pace the session and pinpoint which moves to include. Try using a scale of 1–5 to help people define how they feel physically, mentally and emotionally at the start of the workout and how they want to feel by the end. Then check in throughout the session, says Cauthen, to be sure they’re accomplishing their goals.

Touch Base on Motivation Style

Another way to dial down stress in a session is to ask clients how they would like you to support and motivate them during training. Do they want a cheerleader who validates their efforts or an accountability buddy who pushes them through a tough workout? By giving clients this choice, you allow them to “have someone who really listens and understands their needs,” Cauthen says. Sometimes they need a reminder that showing up is enough, and other times they need a coach to talk them through difficult sets and push a little harder.

No matter how you’re encouraging a client, continuously offering positive reinforcement will lead to a positive performance, says Carter. Saying things like “Great effort,” “You got this” or “I can see your improvement” will work better for any desired outcome than “You’re wimping out,” she says. Think about a 5-to-1 ratio in terms of positive to negative interactions. If you need to correct a client or give constructive feedback, make sure you follow that up with (many more) notes of praise for their work, Carter says.

See also: Techniques for Mindful Recovery

Bring in Mindfulness

Mindfulness for stress relief

One way to add mindfulness to sessions is to ask what clients are feeling physically or what they’re thinking about.

Focus on the present. “Stress is often about worry over the future or regret over the past,” Carter says. “Our breath is an anchor to the present, and focusing on breath during exercise can enhance mindfulness and stress management.” It can also improve body awareness, she says. In a randomized controlled study of 40 retired male football players, an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program lowered stress levels, and benefits were still present at the 12-week follow-up (Norouzi et al. 2020).

Beyond breathwork, another tactic for adding mindfulness to sessions is to ask what clients are feeling physically or what they’re thinking about as they work. Carter recommends using questions like these: “What do you notice about your breath?” “Which muscle group are you working right now?” “What thoughts are you experiencing in anticipation of this exercise?”

“Mindfulness is observing our thoughts, feelings and body sensations in a nonjudgmental way, and trainers can help individuals practice self-compassionate observation to decrease stress,” Carter adds. Talking through any anxiety that comes up can also be helpful.

Engage the senses. If clients seem mentally removed from the workout, put exercise on pause. Then, instruct them to point out three things they’re seeing in the room and three sounds they’re hearing. Getting in touch with the senses will bring clients’ attention to their immediate surroundings. From there, says Cauthen, “find a way to bring the focus back to the workout.”

A change of scenery can also help to engage the senses, so if you can, take clients outside or go to a different room of the gym. And if your options are limited, simply change up the exercise or the rep count.

Take Breaks When Necessary

“You don’t want to make the workout session another stressor,” says Gill. Make sure you keep the session fun so clients can let go of anxiety about the outside world and instead pay attention to their movements and your words. This might mean adding in rest breaks, especially if you’re working through a tough cardio set or a heavy strength circuit. Including deep breathing in rest breaks will increase their benefit. They’re also an opportunity to talk about feelings and to celebrate successes, says Gill.

Being mindful in each of your sessions with your clients—and helping them stay present as they breathe and move—can help you increase the stress-relieving benefits of training. Communication is key, too, so continue to talk to your clients about what they need physically, mentally and emotionally to make the most of each workout.

See also: Use Stress to Fuel Peak Performance

Encourage More Daily Movement

We should all move our bodies in some form or fashion every day, says Hillary Cauthen, PsyD, executive board member for the Association of Applied Sport Psychology. With the pandemic restricting many of our activities, it’s more important than ever to talk to your clients about fitting exercise into their days. Promote daily walks (or runs), twice-weekly weight training, and 10- to 15-minute stretch breaks throughout the workday. Connect with clients via apps and encourage check-ins between training days. The more clients move, the better they can tame stress.




APA (American Psychological Association). 2020. Stress in America 2020. Accessed Nov. 24, 2020: apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2020/report.

Ashdown-Franks, G., et al. 2019. Exercise as medicine for mental and substance use disorders: A meta-review of the benefits for neuropsychiatric and cognitive outcomes. Sports Medicine, 50 (1), 151–70.

CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). 2020. Mental health, substance use, and suicidal ideation during the COVID-19 pandemic—United States, June 24–30, 2020. Accessed Nov. 24, 2020: cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6932a1.htm.

Cohen, S., Murphy, M.L.M., & Prather, A.A. 2019. Ten surprising facts about stressful life events and disease risk. Annual Review of Psychology, 70, 577–97.

Hackney, A.C. 2006. Stress and the neuroendocrine system: The role of exercise as a stressor and modifier of stress. Expert Review of Endocrinology & Metabolism, 1 (6), 783–92.

Jackson, E.M. 2013. Stress relief: The role of exercise in stress management. ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal, 17 (3), 14–19.

Meyer, J., et al. 2020. Changes in physical activity and sedentary behavior in response to COVID-19 and their associations with mental health in 3052 US adults. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17 (19), 6949.

Singh, M., Sachdev, S., & Singh, A. 2019. Effect of acute bout of moderate-intensity physical exercise on parameters of stress and cognitive functions. National Journal of Physiology, Pharmacy and Pharmacology, 9 (11), 1068–72.

Norouzi, E., et al. 2020. Implementation of a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression and to improve psychological well-being among retired Iranian football players. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 47, 101636.

Mallory Creveling

Mallory Creveling is an ACE-certified personal trainer based in Brooklyn, New York. Besides leading personal and semiprivate training sessions in New York City, she is a freelance fitness and health writer. Her work has appeared in publications like Shape, Runner’s World, Health, Men’s Journal and more.

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November-December 2020 IDEA Fitness Journal

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