3 Ways Instead of Alcohol or Medication to Reduce Stress and Anxiety and Improve Your Mood, Backed by Science

First things first. Depression is the fourth-leading cause of the global disease burden, and the leading cause of disability. As for stress, nearly one in three people report feeling extreme stress, and three out of four experience stress that affects their physical or mental health. For some of those people, treatment (including medication) is the answer. 

After all, taking care of your mental health is not just good for you; it’s also good for business. Research shows sustained, chronic stress can cause leaders to become uncertain and unmotivated, and turn their focus toward themselves rather than their teams.

But what if you want to boost your mood and reduce your level of anxiety or stress without seeking treatment, taking medications, or mixing a few drinks?

Enter exercise. At an extreme level, research shows exercise can be an effective way to treat clinical anxiety. (As opposed to “normal” anxiety, clinical anxiety is a medical disorder defined by excessive feelings of worry or persistent, even intrusive thoughts about certain fears, or constant fear in general.)

Another study found that increasing the frequency of exercise significantly reduces the odds of becoming depressed; go from two long walks to three, or go from two 15-minute jogs per week to three, and you’re over 25 percent less likely to become depressed. (Each additional increase in frequency further reduces the risk.) 

And then there’s this: Another study determined that brief, moderate exercise leaves you feeling more energized than a brief period of rest, and will improve your thinking and decision-making. (Relaxing is actually counterproductive when brain function is concerned: Participants who relaxed for 15 minutes actually performed worse on cognitive tests than they did before resting.)

In each case, the key word is “moderate.” High-intensity training isn’t necessary if your main goal is to improve your mood and reduce stress; running eight-minute miles won’t grind more off your anxiety edge than 10-minute miles. Frequency is much more important than intensity.

For example, if you decide to take a quick, light jog, the key is to increase your heart rate, not to make it skyrocket. “Light” for most people means increasing your heart rate to around 110 to 120 beats per minute, depending of course on your age, fitness level, medical conditions, etc. 

Three simple ways to boost your mood and burn off a little stress?

1. Do a little cardio first thing.

Researchers at the University of Vermont found that aerobic training of “moderate intensity,” with an average heart rate of around 112 beats a minute — elevated, sure, but it’s not like they were hammering away — improved participants’ mood for up to 12 hours after exercise.

Why first thing in the morning?

“Moderate intensity aerobic exercise improves mood immediately and those improvements can last up to 12 hours,” says Jeremy Sibold. “This goes a long way to show that even moderate aerobic exercise has the potential to mitigate the daily stress that results in your mood being disturbed.”

So yeah: Work out late, waste some of those mood-boosted hours sleeping. Work out early, feel better all day.

What kind of cardio you do doesn’t matter. Jog, elliptical, cycle, brisk walk–whatever you most like, and are most likely, to do. 

2. Do a HIIT workout.

HIIT stands for high-intensity interval training. The principle is simple: You go almost as hard as you can for a short period of time, and then rest for enough time to recover and go hard again.

In running terms, that could mean sprinting for 30 seconds, jogging for 30 seconds, sprinting for another 30 seconds, etc. (Here are plenty of different HIIT options, some aerobic, others strength-focused.)

The key is to not HIIT too hard. Vigorous exercise creates immediate strain on your body, and when your body can’t adapt, cortisol builds up in your system, and cortisol is the primary stress hormone. 

One way to avoid that problem is to start slower and get in a little better shape before you add HIIT training to your workouts. Another way is to start with, say, six minutes of HIIT — doing one 30-second high-output period, followed by 30 seconds of recovery, and repeating the cycle for six total minutes, and then gradually increasing the number and duration of cycles. Or doing 30 seconds “on” and increasing the subsequent rest periods to 45 or 60 seconds.

Again, where mood boosting is concerned, the key is to elevate your heart rate — not red-line it.

3. Do a group workout.

Researchers found that working out in a group lowers stress by 26 percent and significantly improves mental, physical, and emotional quality of life compared with working out alone. The communal benefits of interacting with friends and colleagues paid dividends.

Interestingly, people who worked out alone tended to exercise twice as long per session as those who worked out in a group. (Yet more proof that most meetings are extremely inefficient.)

But if you prefer to work out solo, don’t worry. Another study found there was no significant difference in mental health improvement between solo and group exercise.

The key is to exercise in the way and setting that you prefer. If working out alone is your thing (it’s definitely mine), you’ll enjoy it more. You’ll do it more often.

And you’ll therefore be more likely to reap the benefits.

Because the key to improving your mood — and your mental health — is to not just do things that are good for you.

It also helps to do things you like.

According to Adam Chekroud, the senior author of a study on the relationship between exercise and mental health

This is very strong evidence there is a relationship between exercise and mental health. It seems like there are some sweet spots, and the relationship is probably complex.

But even things like walking or household chores seem to have benefits.

So keep it simple. Focus on frequency, not intensity. Do that, and you’ll improve your health and fitness and your mental health.

That’s double-dip is hard to beat.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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