How to Reduce Stress and Psoriasis Flare-Ups Through Exercise
We all know that stress can trigger psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis flares. The research has told us this, people living with psoriatic disease have told us this, and the National Psoriasis Foundation has told us this.
“It is well understood at this point that psoriasis is an autoimmune disease, which means a type of condition where the immune system attacks itself,” says Felecia Sumner, a board-certified doctor of osteopathic medicine who lives with psoriasis and authoedr the book Fill Your Cup, a comprehensive guide to managing stress. She points to a 2018 study published in JAMA that linked increased stress to an increased risk of autoimmune disease.
She says there are a lot of possible reasons for this link, but most likely, it’s that stress lowers immune function and causes the release of inflammatory chemicals. No matter the scientific explanation, stress is a common trigger for psoriasis patients, so finding ways to reduce that stress can be key to maintaining a happy, healthy life, with as few psoriasis flares as possible. That’s where exercise comes in.
Research has found people tend to feel calmer after 20 to 30 minutes of aerobic exercise. Harvard Health says this is because aerobic activity reduces stress hormones and releases feel-good endorphins. And Mayo Clinic calls exercise “meditation in motion,” saying it can improve your overall mood.
But you might wonder: Does the exercise have to be aerobic to reduce stress? If you want to get the most stress-relief bang for your exercise buck, what should you be doing? How often and how intensely should you be doing it? We took a closer look at exactly how to reap the benefits of exercise for stress relief.
Make Time to Exercise Regularly
You don’t have to push yourself hard to relieve stress, says Kelly Von Schleis, a certified personal trainer, health coach, and Pilates instructor. Von Schleis sees stress reduction as the core foundation of her training emphasis with clients.
She explains that, “Even a simple 10- to 30-minute stroll can reduce stress, clear the mind, and improve mood. Exercise in almost any form can act as a stress reliever—from a slow vinyasa yoga flow to an HIIT (high intensity interval training) session.”
In other words, the point isn’t to push yourself as hard as you possibly can—it’s simply to get your body moving.
“Even though many people strain their bodies with more vigorous exercise in an attempt to combat stress, experts agree that even a low to moderate amount of regular exercise has short- and long-term benefits,” Von Schleis says. And the research backs her up, with moderate-intensity anaerobic exercise being associated with the greatest overall mood improvements.
Different people may have a different understanding of what “moderate-intensity” exercise means. Certified personal trainer Kaley Hatfield says that while all forms of exercise and body movement can help to reduce stress and clear your mind, your workouts shouldn’t necessarily be “easy” for you.
“You want something slightly challenging that leaves you somewhat out of breath,” Hatfield explains. “Usually within 55 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate.”
How often and how long should you aim to achieve that heart rate? She says at least 30 minutes, three times a week.
“If you’re starting off, low-impact exercise is going to be better than nothing. But the more your body gets used to that type of exercise, the less your heart rate will increase doing it.”
So, if increasing your heart rate and experiencing that rush of endorphins is your goal, consider stepping up your workout routine every few weeks to make sure you continue to challenge yourself.
Find the Best Exercises for Stress Relief
“Virtually any type of exercise can boost your feel-good endorphins and cleanse the mind from daily worries,” Von Schleis says. “The most important thing is to pick an activity you enjoy.”
Need some ideas of where to start? Von Schleis personally recommends these five activities:
Yoga is an excellent stress-relieving activity involving a series of stationary and moving poses combined with deep breathing. Research shows that yoga improves overall brain functioning and improves emotional regulation, which decreases anxiety and depression.
Designed to push you to your limits, HIIT was named one of the top fitness trends in the world in 2019, based on an annual survey by the American College of Sports Medicine. High-intensity interval training targets the performance of each exercise at max effort for a brief period of time, followed by a brief active recovery or rest. These shortened workouts can be done with minimal or no equipment and will optimize metabolic efficiency and that stress-relieving endorphin boost.
Similar to yoga but with less exertion, tai chi involves a series of self-paced, body-flow movements synced with specific breathing techniques. Although the movements have roots in martial arts, they are intended to calm the mind and condition the body, making tai chi an excellent choice for stress relief.
With an emphasis on alignment, breathing, and developing a strong core, Pilates utilizes a series of controlled movements and mat exercises. Pilates is designed to increase strength, flexibility, and endurance, as well as to improve coordination and balance, making it an effective anaerobic exercise that relieves stress while toning the body.
Kickboxing has powerful stress-busting benefits, encouraging the flow of endorphins. It involves controlled punching and kicking movements. The exercises help improve strength, coordination, and balance, and make for a physically intensive outlet to release energy.
Know When to Keep It Low-Impact
If you’ve got psoriatic arthritis, an injury, or other limitation, you already know that some exercises can be painful, which is ultimately stress-inducing, not reducing. If that’s you, Hatfield says, “Deep breathing, stretching, and walking are all great exercises to clear your mind at low impact.”
Moving in general is what will make you feel better, she explains, adding, “Whether it’s walking, dancing, swimming, it doesn’t matter. As long as you’re enjoying it and moving, you’re going to be happier.”
Von Schleis further recommends bicycling, rowing, and elliptical machines for those looking for great aerobic stress-reducing exercises that are low-impact on the joints.
“Isometric and isotonic exercises can also be incorporated into your low-impact workout routine,” she explains.
Isometric exercises, she says, involve building muscle in a way that relieves any stress or pressure on joints. The example she gave might be pressing the palms of your hands together with force.
“Isotonic exercises are gentle exercises that create resistance with your own body weight like lifting and lowering your leg from the knee while sitting in a chair which is a low-impact way to build strength and muscle with very little resistance.”
If you’re unsure how to incorporate isometric and isotonic exercises into your exercise routine, you can speak to a personal trainer or physical therapist for guidance.
Make a Fun and Realistic Plan
There is no one form of exercise that has been identified as the ultimate stress reliever. That comes down to what you enjoy and works for your body and lifestyle. According to Mayo Clinic, “virtually any form of exercise, from aerobics to yoga, can act as a stress reliever.”
And that’s why Hatfield says it’s most important that you, “Make sure you’re enjoying your exercise routine. There is nothing worse than dreading the ‘power hour’ you have planned for yourself. And also no surer way to call it quits after the first week.”
Choose a form of exercise you can see yourself doing several days a week, every week. Don’t pick something that feels like torture—your workouts should be things you can actually look forward to, whether that’s taking a dance class or tackling all the most popular hikes in your area.
“Exercising outdoors stimulates your senses and can help clear your mind in a way the gym doesn't offer,” says Von Schleis.
So, take advantage of the weather on a clear day, and hop on a bike, go for jog, or give kayaking a try. You might just feel your stress melt away as you do.