January 08, 2008

When exercise might not be the right answer

[Written by Mary]

No, I'm not talking about the retired professor who wrote "The Joy of Laziness," advocating that people exercise less and sleep in more. He felt that exercise made people more stressed, while laziness (such as hanging out in a hammock) made them more relaxed. I'd like to put that theory to further non-rigorous testing before offering an opinion one way or another.

I'm talking about an article in Psychology Today about how exercise might not be the best way to respond to stress. This is totally contrary to my oft-repeated mantra of exercise or else, but this article made me think. (In itself a good thing.)

Basically the author suggests that exercise might not be the best response to stress. Or at least, not all the time. She advocates positive social contact instead. (I'm grossly oversimplifying what the author wrote, but that's a side effect of my laziness testing.) She quotes a neuroscientist, "You may think exercise is curative... but the calm you get from jogging 10 miles is more analgesic than therapeutic."

This runs counter to everything else I've read on the subject. Everywhere you look experts are recommending exercise as a form of stress management. Exercise helps the body relax. It doesn't make my problems go away, but if I'm relaxed I'm better prepared to face them.

The idea of deliberately not exercising worries me a bit. It would be so easy to slide into the habit of using stress as an excuse not to exercise. Working out is the best way to blow off steam that I know of. Perhaps the solution would be for people in high-stress situations to exercise in a social setting: go to a gym, join a cycling group, something like that. I've always been a loner when it comes to exercise, but maybe I could persuade the dog to come along on a run.

I don't think there's anything wrong with positive social contact when you're having a stressed-out day; I just don't think it should take the place of exercise.

I remember reading of one woman who used to stuff herself whenever she was upset, taking the concept of comfort food to an extreme. Then she switched to exercising when she was upset, which at first was great. She lost a lot of weight, toned her body, and felt good about herself. But she felt good about herself only when she was exercising. So she ended up exercising for hours at a time (I believe her exercise drug of choice was dancing), to the point where she seriously injured the tendons in her legs but wanted to continue dancing anyway. Someone in that situation should probably try hammock testing for a change. Or social contact. (Or social contact in a hammock.)

Seems to me that if you have a tendency to take things to this extreme, then exercise might not be the right answer for you. I suspect this woman is the exception rather than the rule. But that's just my opinion. What do you think?

Note: the hammock up above is available for a mere $19,500. (Background setting not included.) I don't know how you're supposed to relax in something that expensive, but it does look nice.


  1. I totally agree. Not only is exercise theraputic both physically and mentally when you're stressed, but I think NOT exercising when you're used to it is a huge stressor in itself.

    As much as I complain about working out, I get REALLY cranky when I don't.

  2. I really want that hammock...

    I could see how a compulsive exercise regime could really hurt more than help.
    But a little workout a few days a week?
    Well, I'm back at workouts after almost a month of slothful chocolate inhalation and I feel fantastic...

  3. Okay, the Bag Lady has some thoughts on this. First, some of you may have surmised from little hints that she has occasionally dropped in her comments and on her blog that she does NOT exercise in the conventional sense (she has her own built-in gym in her chores...somewhere on Crabby's blog is a guest post with more info, if you care at all) Oops, lost my train of thought...oh, right. It's the THOUGHT of exercising that stresses the Bag Lady out...especially imagining herself going to a gym with all the hard-body types.
    But that hammock...wow, the Bag Lady could certainly enjoy herself in that. Of course, at this time of year, it would definitely have to be in the setting it is pictured in. The joy would be somewhat diminished if you had to brush the snow off it and lie in it in wearing something that made you resemble the Michelin Man...

  4. I need to work out to relieve stress, especially this time of year...(I am an accountant).
    But that hammock looks as if it does need a test drive - I volunteer!

  5. I could so use that hammock right now...but I'll settle for the lawn chair cushion that's hiding in the corner of my office.

    But I too always find running let's me get out my aggression and calms me a bit, but I always thought it was the endorphins making me happy, not the exercise lulling me to sleep.

  6. First, let me say that I didn't read all through the article on why exercise is not the solution...I skimmed the first part of it, then I could feel my eyes glazing over...Not quite up to all that this morning.

    I don't agree that exercise is not an answer - I find, for myself, that it can have quite a therapeutic effect. Going for a walk when I'm feeling stressed really helps to clear my head. Strength training or yoga gives me something else to concentrate on and can really help to calm me down. So I certainly don't see eliminating exercise.

    But, perhaps in some cases it is only part of the solution. In cases of extreme stress, there certainly may be other things that would be beneficial, that would provide further or more complete stress relief.

    And maybe it just depends on the individual, like so many other things.

  7. I'm with Crabby that if working out is a normal and enjoyable part of your day, then skipping it is likely to be a bad thing.

    Social contact? I'd say that depends on the individual. I'm an introvert and socializing, even with people I adore, is draining, leaving me stressed and anxious. At the end of a workday the last thing I want is to see more people! Make them go awaaayyy!!!

    Of course, there are rare cases where even for a gal like me, exercise is not the answer and a little face time with a friend does wonders. But those cases are the exception that proves the rule.

    If I were an extrovert, I'd expect the opposite to be true: solitary exercise would be draining and socializing would be relaxing.

    Maybe the study cited in Psychology Today was only done on extroverts.

  8. Yeah I also disagree with the 'don't exercise to deal with stress'.

    Ask my boyfriend, when I come home from the gym, I am relaxed, happy and stress free. When I'm cranky, essentially a trip to the gym will fix it.

    Working out is extremely therapeutic for me, it's an energy outlet, time to think or time to just listen to awesome tunes and forget your worries.

  9. (Or social contact in a hammock.) Where do I sign up for THAT?! lol!

    It depends which stress reliever I reach for in times of stress. Some days a workout really does works wonders. Other days, social contact really does the trick. Sure, exercise will get the endorphins pumping, but there's nothing like commiserating with a pal to snap you out of a funk or help you chill...

  10. Can't we just all pool our money and buy the hammock for when we visit your blog? We can set it up right over there by the cupcake bar. It won't be long before Cranky Hammocking is all the rage...

  11. I am ALWAYS stressed until I get my workout in. Then, I am stressed about when I will get my NEXT workout in.

  12. Whew! The consensus seems to be that exercise is a good answer for stress most of the time, which is what I was hoping for. I agree that sometimes you need a hug, and I'm certainly ready for social contact in a hammock, but I'm not going to use that as an excuse to get out of exercising.

    Crabby? Is there room in the budget for a hammock? ;)

  13. Ok, how do I become cranky when I don't exercise? I'm still doing it backwards, the thought of exercising makes me cranky!!!

  14. Well let me do some calculations... $19,000 for a hammock, ad revenue per year...

    Sure! Cranky Fitness can afford a hammock in about 3 trillion years!

    In the meantime, at least we can provide some virtual socializing--perfect for us introverts who get stressed out sometimes by socializing with physically present people (unless they're very carefully selected physically present people).

    I know there are times when I'm stressed but I come here and read the great comments, laugh, and feel better.

    I don't think any of us see exercise and social support as an either/or--which is what makes the article interesting/irritating. I bet you can probably get some of the same vagus nerve benefits by doing a few minutes of deep breathing or meditating when you really need to, especially if you don't have a close friend nearby--then have time to hit the gym too.

    Oh and Emily, it's quite possible to be both Cranky about exercising and Even Crankier about Not exercising--it just takes some time and practice.

  15. Exercise definitely helps me, but (depending on my mood), being social helps me more. If I have a hard day, smiling and being friendly and having people be friendly to me at the gym can really help. Though, on the few occasions I worked out alone, I have still gotten an endorphin boost and lowered stress.

    But then, I also participate in social sports like dodgeball and kickball, so I meld the two (and playing flip cup doesn't hurt for relieving stress either...)

  16. Eh... easy: social sports. I guess then, you get the benefits of both?

    I'll agree with other posters. If the stressor is something like, oh, a 7-hours long meeting at work (yeah, we pull that one regularly enough where I work...), the LAST thing I want to do to fight the stress is *see more people*. -_-

  17. I think exercise-as-stress-relief is right in many occasions, for many people, but not all occasions/all people. This researcher seems to be taking a really all-or-nothing approach.

    When I'm stressed, I need to listen to my body and mind. Sometimes that will mean I get some exercise, other times it means curling up in my pj's and eating ice cream while I watch Jeopardy. Neither one is "wrong" if I've listened to my body and mind and gone with what they need that day.

  18. If I could afford a $20,000 hammock, I wouldn't have any stress.

  19. Great post. I have no idea if exercise is a good stress reliever. I seem to be stressed at all times, so I guess it doesn't really matter one way or the other.

    One question though--what is best to do when you have a head cold--go into lazy/hibernation mode, or continue with your exercise regimen?

  20. Speaking of hammocks, am I the only one here who really dislike that stuff? I swear, every time I've been in one, it has completely killed my back. :|

  21. I'm with you Kery, sometimes hammocks sound a lot more relaxing than they actually are!

    And re exercising with a head cold: I think advice varies on this. If it's not a bad cold, I think a lot of folks say go right ahead. But if it's a bad one or the flu, rest is probably better. But I'm not a doctor! I just know I've exercised with a cold and nothing bad happened.

  22. If we had yesterdays 10 million we could afford todays hammock and we wouldn't have any stress! Especially those of us who would live a hermits life if only we had the money!

  23. I know no other better stress reliever than pounding a few balls into my opponent...Volleyballs that is, been playing since I was 10...It is seriously one of the best ways to get any aggression and or stress out of my body...I also feel that my hour or two in the gym lifting and cardio are great to clear my mind and put everything into perspective.

    Did someone say cupcakes?? Social contack in a hammock?? SIGN ME UP!!

  24. Social contact? Pass.

    Exercise? Sure.

    Hammock? Oh, yeah.

  25. I think if you can afford the hammock it should come with a year long supply of cupcakes on demand.
    With sprinkles of course...

  26. This is for Christina: the rule for exercising with a cold is that if your symptoms are only in your head (drippy nose, for example), it's okay to work out. If you have symptoms of a lung ailment, don't.

    It's often referred to as the "above the neck" rule. :-)

  27. Mary, you are so funny! I can't wait until the next time I feel stressed out enough to pass on exercise. In fact, I feel an anxiety attack coming on right now...
    Kidding! I agree with Crabby. When I don't get to the gym, I feel more stressed, not to mention guilty.

  28. I agree with some of the other comments: I can't go without exercising. It's my outlet. It takes the edge off the day and provides an outlet for frustrations/tension, etc.

  29. My dad is soon to be 92. He works outside, weeding the yard, picking up pecans, and has always had a large garden. He does not take any medicine, nor does he take vitamins, drinks no glasses of water. He does drink one coke a day, He has a very sharp mind. He reads his Bible everyday and he is very happy man.

  30. IMO -- It seems to me that the key to a lot of things in life is to be multidimensional -- incorporate variety. Someone who only exercises is going to have stress because of both the obsession and the exercise. Someone who obsesses about relaxation is going to have stress because of the effects of that. Someone who tries to lose weight by only eating celery is going to have stress from a lack of essential vitamins and minerals.

    Eat right, exercise enough, get enough rest, enjoy being with friends, get your spiritual life right, live well and stress will usually be manageable.



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