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Exercise: A Quick and Easy Way for Teens to Deal With Stress

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT
Meet The Team >

Exercise and You

If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a million times: a regular exercise regimen keeps you healthy, strong, emotionally balanced, and adds years to your life. Experts recommend at least an hour of activity a day for children, teenagers, adults, and people of retirement age. No matter how old you are, no matter what point in life you find yourself, you need to keep your body moving for at least an hour a day.

That’s not all: the experts say we need a good mix of low intensity, moderate intensity, and high intensity exercise as well. Those levels – low, moderate, and high – are relative to your age, of course. What’s high for a twenty-something might be low for a forty-something. On the other hand, what’s low for a super-active forty-something might be high for a sedentary twenty-something or teenager. It all comes down to who you are, what your relationship with exercising and working out is, and the specific details of your physical/medical history.

Here’s a quick reminder of the general benefits or regular exercise:

  • Builds and maintains cardiovascular strength and efficiency
  • Increases and maintains muscular strength and efficiency
  • Releases endorphins (our bodies natural feel-good chemicals)
  • Improves bone health and integrity
  • Raises metabolic rate
  • Reduces stress
  • Improves sleep
  • Raises energy levels
  • Combats obesity, diabetes, and heart disease
  • Improves joint health
  • Boosts immunity

Exercise and Cortisol

Cortisol is the hormone released by our adrenal glands when we experience an acute stressor. It’s most commonly known as the fight-or-flight or stress hormone. Cortisol plays an important role in many physiological processes, but it also affects our emotions. It can cause feelings of anxiety, unease, and depression. The effect of exercise on cortisol is two-fold: during exercise, our cortisol levels increase, but they quickly return to normal after we’re finished. Despite the temporary increase during workouts, regular exercise results in a net reduction of circulating blood cortisol levels. Research also shows that aerobic exercise, in particular, helps regulate cortisol levels and has a profound, positive effect on how we feel. It reduces anxiety, improves mood, and increases our overall sense of well-being.

How to Find the Right Exercise Routine for You

Finding your exercise sweet-spot is a highly personalized endeavor. The first thing to understand is you have the power to think outside-the-box and make up your own regimen, on your own terms, and in your own style. We mentioned you need to mix low, moderate, and high intensity exercise into your one hour (minimum) of activity per day. Don’t let that intimidate you. You don’t need a personal trainer, a television show, or an exercise guru to tell you what these intensities mean, and you don’t have to go about them in traditional ways.

To make sure we’re on the same page, we’ll run through what low, moderate, and high intensity mean.

  • Low intensity means you’re moving, but your heart rate doesn’t get too high. You’re active, but during whatever activity it is you’re doing, you can maintain conversation with ease. Long easy walks count as low intensity exercise.
  • Moderate intensity means an effort you can sustain for quite a while, but not forever. Your heart rate increases and you can still maintain a conversation, but your sentences start to get shorter. Your muscles start to fatigue after ten to twenty minutes of moderate-intensity exercise. Brisk walks, easy jogs, slow runs, and recreational bike rides count as moderate intensity exercise.
  • High intensity means doing something at the limit of your capacity for a short period of time. This type of activity, in the gym or in sports, typically takes the form of anaerobic interval training: short bouts of really hard work interspersed with periods of rest that are at least as long as the hard activity. Sprints, squats, pushups, and sets of abs (sit-ups, crunches, etc.) count as high-intensity exercise.

Do It Your Way

It bears repeating – you don’t need a gym membership or the latest DVD with a ripped ex-Marine on the cover to find your favorite activity. You don’t even need what most people think of as traditional exercise. All you need is knowledge, time, and an honest commitment to consistency. When you combine those three, you can find your workout sweet spot, which will change your life on many levels. It will reduce your levels of stress, make you happier, healthier, and add years to your life: what more could you ask for?

You might also be interested in: How to Help Kids with Anxiety


Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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