Why Exercise Is Your Best Stress Outlet for the Holidays

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I am exhausted after what might possibly be the hardest year of my life—but I know that exercise, as hard as it is right now, is the best thing for me.

For anyone in recovery, exercise is your friend—especially over the holidays. I know that the last thing most people feel like doing at the end of the year is expending more energy; it’s a time we’re winding down and taking some much needed time out. Believe me, when I say it’s the last thing I feel like doing! I am exhausted after what might possibly be the hardest year of my life—but I know that exercise, as hard as it is right now, is the best thing for me. And for anyone else trying to cope with challenging life changes.

In January this year, I relocated my entire life and started a new beginning in Portland, Oregon. To most people, moving to a new state is a challenge. I went a step further and moved to a different continent! Even though I lived in the US until I was four, I spent the last 34 years of my life living in the UK. While the most exhilarating and challenging adventure of a lifetime, it has taken all my faith, trust, perseverance, and entrepreneurial spirit to make it through this year without having a nervous breakdown. Not only did I make it through—I also started and grew a successful business at the same time. I have shown myself a level of determination, drive and resilience I didn’t even know that I had.

After all of that, I feel like I have reached the summit of Mount Everest. And I want to set up camp for an almighty exhale and lie down.

Taking on a challenge like that has required working crazy hours, seven days a week. Most days, I have felt such uncertainty that I can only liken to repeatedly jumping out of a plane. Naturally, there is only so much energy and strength I can muster and I now feel—as most of us do as we wind down for the year—ready for a vacation. Even though I love what I do, and acknowledge everything that I’ve achieved, I am a little burned out. I need a break—like a long one!

“As someone who is naturally inclined to depression, anxiety, and feelings of extreme stress, exercise is my number one coping strategy.”

What has this got to do with exercise you might ask? Well, I don’t think I would’ve achieved so much, and displayed such strength and resilience, had I not exercised so much this year. I have consistently done something most days—whether a training session at the gym four times a week, or cycling 50 miles a week. That may seem like a strange statement to make, but it is very true for me—I literally could not have done it without the benefits of exercise.

As someone who is naturally inclined to depression, anxiety, and feelings of extreme stress, exercise is my number one coping strategy. That’s because, it supports my body enough to be able to achieve all that I have. The benefits of exercise have:

  • helped me process extreme stress

  • improved my mood

  • lifted my spirits

  • lowered my anxiety

  • enabled me to make healthier food choices

  • provided energy

  • promoted better sleep

  • strengthened my body

  • shown me what my body is capable of in terms of energy, strength, and capacity.

Exercise has been my number one tool for getting through this year, and getting through the really difficult times. The same applies to feeling burned out, preparing for long-haul travel, and a recent bout of depression: exercise is my cure. It’s my medicine. Now, I don’t mean it should replace medical intervention—I have that too—but it is a fundamental tool of my recovery.

Right now, feeling this exhaustion and depression, I know that if I just do one thing, it’s to get to the gym. I make it as easy as possible: I tell myself that I just need to cycle there and do one strength-building exercise—that’s it. If I feel able to do more when I am there, great. If not, I have achieved what I set out to. This lowering of expectation is crucial at a time when we feel overwhelmed, stressed, depressed, or anything else that challenges our state of mind—and the holidays are just the thing for raising the stress levels!

Just do something small. You’ll thank yourself for it. Because if you don’t, that’s when the depression deepens, the stress levels rise, and the more we reach for unhealthy behaviors to numb out. For me that means one thing: binging. Then I get into a cycle of doing it, and then hating myself for it. Cue: more emotional eating. Exercise is my key to limiting that behavior, and allowing myself to cope as best as I can to get through until the fog lifts, and I am rested for a new challenge.


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Olivia Pennelle is a writer, journalist, and recovery activist. Her work has appeared in STAT News, Insider, Filter Magazine, Ravishly, The Temper, and Shondaland. She is the founder of popular site Liv’s Recovery Kitchen. She lives near Portland, Oregon. Follow her on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter

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