7 ways exercise can make the holiday season less stressful and more cheerful

The holidays should be a good time, full of laughter, joy, and general merriment. And for a lot of people, a lot of the time, they’re just that.

But somehow or another, they can also quickly become stressful. The financial bit. The lack of routine. The having to deal with extended family, which can quickly lead to social anxiety, awkward conversation, and the occasional heated debate.

Amidst it all, sometimes the joy and merriment can get tarnished, if not lost altogether. Stress can be a real buzzkill.

How Exercise Can Help

Luckily, exercise can help keep the season bright in a variety of ways. Doing yoga, lifting weights, walking, running, and swimming might not seem like traditional holiday activities, but they’re actually five types of exercise proven to help ease stress.

More generally, getting active, in whatever form, is one of the single best things you can do to naturally reduce stress. Here’s why.

1. Exercise improves physical fitness.

What does being in good shape have to do with stress? It turns out physical fitness can increase mental toughness. A study out of the University of Kansas, for instance, found that people who were physically fit were better able to cope with stressful life changes. The mind-body connection is strong, which is why being in better shape can leave you better prepared to handle everyday, or holiday, stress.

2. Exercise creates a buffer.

Think of exercise as a shield that stops stress from hurting you. It may seem like a strange concept at first, but studies have shown that simply walking regularly can help protect you against the negative effects of stress.

3. Exercise rewires your brain.

Okay, another strange concept, but a neat one. To vastly oversimplify, exercise changes how your brain responds to stress. When it comes to running, for instance, a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that it helped reorganize the brain to be more resilient to stress by building new neural pathways. Pretty cool, right?

4. Exercise boosts your mood.

Here’s a more straightforward idea that you’ve probably experienced firsthand. By releasing endorphins, exercise can have all sorts of beneficial impacts on your mood, making you feel more calm, less anxious, and happier. One study has shown that even a 20-minute workout can boost your mood for up to 12 hours.

5. Exercise helps you sleep.

Simply put, exercise leads to better sleep and better sleep to less stress. Research shows that people who get regular physical activity fall asleep faster, sleep longer, and get higher quality sleep. In turn, people who are well-rested are better able to cope with stress, are less likely to snap at loved ones, and have more energy to tackle whatever life throws their way. Even a 10-minute walk can do the trick.

6. Exercise gets you outside.

Another big benefit of prioritizing exercise during the holiday season is that it often involves getting outside. The natural light and fresh air help your nervous system relax. Your blood pressure lowers, your mood improves, and you generally feel less stressed and anxious. Extra bonus if you can spend some time in nature.

7. Exercise reduces cortisol.    

Finally, the most straightforward way exercise helps with stress is by decreasing the amount of cortisol, the stress hormone, circulating in your bloodstream. When you get stressed out, your cortisol levels spike. Exercise helps lower them. Plain and simple.

Of course, what isn’t plain and simple is finding the time to exercise during the holiday season. With the lack of routine, the kids at home, and having to travel to visit relatives, it’s never easy. But it’s worth it.

You don’t hear exercise mentioned often in holiday carols, but rest assured, it can be just as effective as jingle bells and sleigh rides when it comes to making spirits bright.