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To combat stress, exercise harder

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(Second of two parts about the link between
exercise and stress)

The federal government recommends getting a minimum of 150 minutes of movement a week to maintain good health — roughly 30 minutes of walking on most days.

But to combat stress, you probably need more.

People who do spend more time exercising are less likely to be depressed and have lower rates of anxiety, said Dr. Edward M. Phillips, director of the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine at the Joslin Diabetes Center.

There’s no formula for how much exercise is best for beating stress. And though research suggests that aerobic exercise like running, biking, or swimming is most effective, mixing it up with strength training and mind-body exercises, including yoga and meditation, is also great, he said.


Some research also suggests that getting exercise in nature provides an extra antistress boost. In a study published this year, Stanford University researchers showed that people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural setting were less likely to obsess over negative thoughts than those who walked the same amount in a city.

Exercising in nature is “all-around good for those kinds of negative things in your life,” said Gregory Bratman, a Stanford PhD candidate and environmental psychologist, who led the research.

What if you’re one of those people who hates exercise? Will working out make you more or less unsettled? Animal studies are mixed.

Forcing rats to run on a tiny treadmill — which they hate — doesn’t protect them against stress. But they do show physiological reductions in stress from running on a wheel, even when they aren’t allowed to control the pace. “There is a difference, but we have no idea why,” said Benjamin Greenwood, an assistant professor in the psychology department at the University of Colorado Denver.

Finding an exercise routine that you enjoy and can stick with is probably the best option. Animals that stop exercising lose their stress protection within a few weeks, Greenwood said.


Of course, individual differences probably affect how much exercise someone needs to reduce their stress.

Genes allow some people to get more of a memory boost from exercise than others so the same is probably true of stress, said David Bucci, chairman of the department of psychological and brain science at Dartmouth College.

But, he added, “I’d be hard pressed to believe there’s a group of people out there who get nothing out of it.”KAREN WEINTRAUB

Correction: Because of a reporting error, the Deep Breath stress-managment column in the Saturday Life section incorrectly stated the minimum amount of time federal guidelines suggest individuals should exercise to maintain good health. It is 150 minutes.