What To Do When You’re Too Stressed To Exercise

Learn what to do when you’re too stressed to exercise, and get stress relief tips and workout alternatives for busy people.

Ben Greenfield
5-minute read
Episode #119

What To Do When You’re Too Stressed To Exercise

You’ve probably experienced this feeling: You’re heading home after a stressful day of work and the last thing you want to do is go to the gym. You’re tired, you’re hungry, your brain feels worn out, and you just feel like grabbing a glass of wine and hitting the couch with the TV remote.

Or maybe you set your alarm clock with fantastic intentions to squeeze in a morning exercise session, but by the time you’ve made coffee, checked your email, used the bathroom, then hopped onto Facebook and Twitter, you realize that there’s just no time left to fit in that workout.

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Whether it’s evening stress or morning business that’s keeping you from exercising and achieving your body transformation goals, this episode will tell you exactly what to do when you’re too stressed to exercise (which can be especially useful during this holiday season!).

How Exercise Decreases Stress

In his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, John Ratey describes in great detail how exercise grows brain cells, improves functioning, allows for better focus, and reduces stress. Here are a few highlights from the book:

  • Exercising women lower their risk of dementia by 50%.

  • Exercise can be as effective as antidepressants.

  • Kids who exercised before school versus those who exercised in the middle of the day had better test scores.

  • Exercise has been shown in multiple studies to reduce stress and anxiety.

One of the reasons exercise has such a powerful effect on stress is due to its effect on neurotransmitters, the signaling molecules that your body uses to talk to your brain, and vice versa.

You have both “inhibitory” and “excitatory” neurotransmitters. The inhibitory neurotransmitters are serotonin and GABA, and these primarily make you feel happy and de-stressed, and can even help sleep when present in adequate amounts.  However, if these hormones are depleted or low due to poor diet, lack of physical activity, or high stress, you can suffer from depression, insomnia, anger, and a vicious cycle of even more stress. 

The excitatory neurotransmitters are glutamate, catecholamines, Beta-phenylethylamine (PEA), and dopamine.  In balanced amounts, these excitatory neurotransmitters help to keep you alert, thinking sharply, focused and de-stressed. But in high amounts, they can cause more stress, panic, anxiety, and poor sleep.

The simple process of staying physically active (especially if you don’t exercise too much) can help keep these neurotransmitters balanced and decrease stress, especially when combined with a healthy diet.

What to Do if You’re Too Stressed to Exercise?

Ironically, even though exercise can do such a good job of controlling stress, sometimes you can feel like you’re just to stressed to exercise. So here are my 5 Quick & Dirty Tips to work out when you feel over-stressed:

1. Stretch

I have to admit that I personally wake up on some days and feel like a freight train is coming right at me with all of the tasks I have to accomplish. But if I jump right into emails and phone calls, I tend to get sucked into a never-ending cycle of to-do items that keeps me from controlling stress.

So instead, I start every single day with the same morning stretch routine that includes a combination of yoga, calisthenics, and a few body weight exercises. The routine only takes 10 minutes (trust me, I’ve timed), but I’ve found that it accomplishes three things:

  1. Keeps me de-stressed.

  2. Begins my day with a habit (or “ritual”) that keeps me focused.

  3. Makes me more likely to exercise later in day (because I tend to be an “all-or-nothing” personality).

2. Breathe

If you checked out last week’s episode, you know all about How to Breathe the Right Way using the 6 simple tips I gave you. When you feel too stressed to exercise, sometimes it’s because you are simply overwhelmed by the number of things you feel like you’re under pressure to accomplish – and often this pressure can be relieved by just taking a few moments to detach yourself and breathe.

I’ve often had a very busy day of writing, emails, phone calls, and client meetings that leaves me feeling like collapsing in a crumbled heap at 5pm. But I’ve found that on most of those occasions, I can go find a quiet place, close my eyes, and take anywhere from 10 to 20 deep, focused breaths. The surge of oxygen, relaxation, and a “break” from the mental strain can be just energizing enough to give me the incentive to put on my running shoes and head to the gym.

3. Just Start

In the same way that stress can create a vicious cycle that keeps you from exercising, getting just a few minutes of exercise in can create a positive cycle that keeps you exercising.

So on days when you feel as though you’re too stressed to exercise, try this:

  • Hop on a treadmill and tell yourself you’re just going to walk or run for 2 minutes.

  • Get down on the ground and do just 20 crunches or pushups.

  • Grab your bicycle and bike just 3 times around the block.

  • Put in a yoga, Pilates, or workout DVD with a goal of making it through just the first 5 minutes.

  • Start a weight training circuit with the goal of just going through 1 time for each exercise.

You may be surprised at what this strategy helps you accomplish. Before you know it, you may be running 2 miles, doing 50 pushups, bicycling for 30 minutes, finishing the entire yoga DVD, or getting through a complete weight training circuit. Think of this as a way of “fooling” your stressed-out brain into exercise. My colleague Get-It-Done Guy calls this technique “Speed Dating Your Tasks.” It’s a way to break down big projects into smaller, bite-sized chunks that feel easier and less overwhelming.

4. Plan Ahead

If you’re stressed or mentally fatigued, the simple task of planning what kind of exercise routine you’re going to do can suddenly seem very complex – and can be overwhelming enough to keep you from exercising at all.

The solution to this is simple: At the beginning of each week when you know you’re not going to be stressed (for me, this is a Sunday evening), plan out your entire week of workouts. I simply use a program called Evernote for this, but you can use a notepad, an email to yourself, a phone app, or anything else you find handy and convenient. Things don’t need to be too complex. Just write down what you’re going to do (i.e. Monday: full body weight training circuit three times through at the gym) and when (before work, after work, etc.).

5. Keep it Short

In the same way that “just starting” can trick your brain into doing a longer workout than you planned, having a few short workouts up your sleeve that you can squeeze in here and there can be helpful.

For example, I have a pull-up bar installed in the door of my office. On days when I know I have way too much planned to be able to squeeze in a formal exercise session, I:

  • do 5 pull-ups every time I walk under the bar

  • do 100 jumping jacks (beside my desk) at the end of each hour

  • stretch in a lunging position for 10 seconds on each side

With this strategy, by the end of the workout day, I’ve done 35-40 pull-ups, 700-800 jumping jacks, and 140-160 seconds of high quality stretching – all without stepping foot in a gym or feeling the pressure to take time out for a long workout.

If you like the idea of short exercises sessions, you may also want to check out the episode How to Do a 10-Minute Workout.

And if you want even more tips on how to control stress, you can read Get It Done Guy’s Quick Stress Relief tips!

If you have more questions about what to do when you’re too stressed to exercise, or have other ideas on how to naturally relieve stress, then post them in Comments or join the conversation at Facebook.com/GetFitGuy!

 Woman Stretching and Man Taking a Deep Breath images from Shutterstock

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ben Greenfield

Ben Greenfield received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from University of Idaho in sports science and exercise physiology; personal training and strength and conditioning certifications from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA); a sports nutrition certification from the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), an advanced bicycle fitting certification from Serotta. He has over 11 years’ experience in coaching professional, collegiate, and recreational athletes from all sports, and as helped hundreds of clients achieve weight loss and fitness success.