It's empowering and cathartic to direct and release stress through an explosive outlet
Research points to higher-intensity exercise for increased mood-enhancing benefits
Editor’s Note: Dana Santas is a certified strength and conditioning specialist, experienced registered yoga teacher and mind-body coach known as the Mobility Maker. She’s the yoga coach for the Toronto Blue Jays, Philadelphia Phillies, Tampa Bay Rays, Atlanta Braves, Tampa Bay Lightning and others in Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and the Professional Golfers’ Association.
Calming activities such as yoga and meditation can be very effective stress relievers, especially when integrated into daily life. However, sometimes stress, like steam trapped under the lid of a boiling pot, needs a more powerful release.
There’s a common saying in sports for that type of release: “Leave it all on the field.” Athletes put it into practice by channeling their emotions into the fuel that powers their performance, leaving any and all anxiety, anger, frustration, etc., on the playing field. That’s exactly the approach I take toward my high-intensity workouts when I’m looking to blow off steam. It’s empowering and cathartic to direct and release my stress through an explosive outlet, such as kicking a heavy bag or slamming a medicine ball to the ground.
Although many forms of exercise counter stress by boosting endorphins (our brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters), recent research points to higher-intensity exercise offering increased mood-enhancing benefits. According to a study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders in August, moderate and high-intensity exercise demonstrated a greater beneficial impact than low-intensity forms.
What’s more, research shows that regular blood-pumping aerobic workouts can reduce your sensitivity to stress over time.
Below, I’ve shared six of my favorite sweat-inducing, stress-releasing exercises. You can do them on their own or combine any or all as part of a HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workout, doing intervals of each exercise with a short rest in between.
Don’t forget to warm up appropriately prior to performing intense exercise. I always foam roll and do a brief breathing and yoga series for muscle activation and enhancing range of motion. The routine I featured in this article on morning yoga can serve as an effective warm-up.
If you’re new to high-intensity training, check with your doctor before beginning, and consider hiring a certified trainer for help learning how to safely perform the exercises. You’ll only add to your stress if you hurt yourself!
Remember that high-intensity exercise requires adequate hydration. Emerging research shows that dehydration can have a negative impact on mood and cognition. So don’t counteract the positive effects of your workout; drink plenty of water before, during and after your training sessions. Because sweat-intensive workouts cause us to lose electrolytes that are essential for our bodies’ neural and muscular processes and maintaining equilibrium, it’s best to rehydrate with an electrolyte-enriched water or sports drink.
There’s nothing quite like taking out your stress on a heavy bag! It provides uniquely satisfying tactile and auditory stimulation that reinforces your sense of release with every kick and punch landed. Of course, not everyone has a heavy bag hanging in their garage gym, like I do. But most gyms and martial arts facilities offer kickboxing classes. If you’ve never kickboxed before, classes provide the opportunity to learn the techniques for executing different punches and kicks, like the roundhouse kick. When I kickbox, I generally go for three to five rounds of a two-to-one work-to-rest ratio: one minute on the bag practicing a series of punches and kicks, and then an active 30-second rest period of side-stepping or jogging around the bag.
Tabata pushup drills
Sometimes, we need to push our limits to feel like we’ve exhausted all of our nervous energy. Tabata drills, created by Japanese scientist Izumi Tabata as a form of HIIT training, provide the perfect platform. The drills consist of the same exercise through eight rounds of 20 seconds of work and 10 seconds of rest for a total of four minutes. Personally, I like to use pushups, but you can do any exercise in this format (e.g., jumping jacks, jumping rope, body-weight squats). If you try pushups, simply do as many as you can with good form for 20 seconds and then rest for 10. Repeat through eight rounds. Due to of the intensity of the drills, by the last couple of rounds, I often end up modifying my pushups by putting my knees down or widening my stance. Don’t be afraid to modify the entire time to maintain form and avoid injury.
Medicine ball slams
Have you ever slammed a door out of frustration? It feels good … but not very productive. Slamming medicine balls is a much better alternative that also serves as a core-focused total-body exercise. Medicine balls are weighted balls used in a variety of exercises. Slams can be done from standing, kneeling or half-kneeling stances. You can slam the ball straight down, diagonally or rotating to the side. I do three to five rounds of 10 (five on each side) at a two-to-one work-to-rest ratio. Select a ball weight based on what you can safely raise overhead and slam hard enough to bounce and catch on each repetition.
When I’m so stressed that I need to pound the pavement, I prefer sprinting over long-distance running. If you decide to sprint off your stress, make sure you add a light run to your warm-up. There’s a speed-limit sign on one end of the street 100 yards from our house, so I jog up and back. Then, for my sprints, I perform five sets of 50-yard dashes halfway to the sign, resting in between for three or four times the amount of time I sprinted. Because of the energy system used for sprinting, it’s necessary to rest much longer to replenish your body’s resources for providing that kind of dramatic energy expenditure.
Despite being an explosive strength exercise, the flowing, rhythmic nature of kettlebell swings feels like meditation in motion to me. That said, it took me a long time and a lot of practice to perfect my swing form. The flowing movement may look simple to execute, but don’t be fooled! A complex series of stabilizing and mobilizing forces is required to safely and effectively swing a kettlebell. There are good videos for beginners to learn proper swing form. The standard starting kettlebell weight is 16 kilograms (about 35 pounds) for men and 8 kilograms (about 18 pounds) for women. I started with 8 kilograms and progressed to 16 kilograms. I practice five sets of 10 to 20 swings, resting for 30 seconds to a minute in between sets.
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When the weight of stress is pulling me down, jumping (symbolically and literally) empowers me to defy that pull. I love box jumps, a form of explosive jump training known as plyometrics. Box jumps are exactly what they sound like: jumping up on a box. When you first start, be conservative with your box height. Twelve to 18 inches is a good starting height range. Don’t try to go too high too soon, or your shins will pay for it as you inevitably miss your mark. The goal is not to achieve a high height for low reps but to jump repeatedly for higher reps with grace and control, landing softly each time. I usually practice three rounds of 10, resting for one to two minutes in between.
Now that you know some ways to sweat out your stress, don’t be afraid to metaphorically “leave it all on the field.” Go ahead and sprint out your frustrations. Punch and kick your fears away. And slam your stress to smithereens!