Dumbbells at work? It's one of the smartest moves you can make. (For Spectrum Health Beat)
Dumbbells at work? It’s one of the smartest moves you can make. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

If we know that stress is bad for us and physical activity reduces the effects of stress, why do we have such a hard time integrating exercise into everyday life?

“If I knew that answer, I’d be rich,” said Kim DeLaFuente, MA, an exercise physiologist who provides exercise education at Spectrum Health Healthier Communities.

Joking aside, DeLaFuente offers a twofold answer that makes a lot of sense: “Exercise in general has become optional. We don’t have to move as much as we used to, and part of that is technology and other conveniences that have been integrated into our life.”

In a lot of situations, the demands of work keep us from exercising.

“People don’t have that comfort level with being able to step away from their desk and move around for a couple of minutes,” she said.

But staying active throughout the workday is easier than we may think. What it takes is a mindset that looks for ways to fit short bursts of activity into our daily routine.

If we can do this, we’ll see rewards on the spot, DeLaFuente said.

“I’m a huge advocate of exercise as a way to improve mood and reduce stress and just make us feel better overall because it has immediate benefits,” she said. “If I go out and walk for five minutes, I’m going to … feel better mentally.”

Exercise reduces stress by improving circulation and neutralizing some of the hormones produced by stress. It also loosens tight muscles and raises dopamine levels in the brain, ultimately providing a greater sense of well-being.

Regular exercise also prepares the body to handle stress.

“As we get exposed to stressful situations, the more fit we are, the better our body is going to respond,” she said.

Here are DeLaFuente’s top tips for fitting stress-reducing activity into our daily routine:

  1. Move with intention. Identify opportunities to incorporate movement throughout the day. For example, take a brisk walk at lunchtime, climb stairs during a break or force yourself to take more steps by parking far from your building’s entrance.
  2. Stand more often. Standing up from time to time will improve circulation to the body and brain. “The point is to break up the long periods of sitting with periods of standing,” DeLaFuente said. “Whether that comes in spurts throughout the day or I decide to stand up and work on my laptop for an hour—either is good.”
  3. Try a treadmill desk. A treadmill equipped with a work surface lets office workers exercise while completing tasks. In DeLaFuente’s office, several employees use a shared treadmill desk set up in a common space.
  4. Take the stairs. This is simple advice, and we need to make it a habit, DeLaFuente said. Walking up and down stairs gets the blood flowing, in addition to toning and strengthening the legs.
  5. Try resistance training at your desk or at home. Use resistance bands, dumbbells and your own body weight to build strength while you work.
  6. Try chair yoga or desk stretching exercises. Loosening tight muscles throughout the day can relieve stress and give a mental lift.
  7. Focus on how exercise makes you feel. With each activity break, look for a boost in your mood. It doesn’t take much physical activity to reap real mental health benefits. Plus, DeLaFuente said, if you get into the habit of taking a “10- or 15-minute walk at lunch with a co-worker, then you can add the social aspects as well.”
  8. Remember that anything is better than nothing. Don’t assume you have to do 30 minutes of exercise for it to be effective. Even short bursts of activity help. “If you’re at a stressful point in the day and you’re able to step away for a few minutes and move around a little bit, that can be just a positive diversion,” DeLaFuente said.