Tips for Exercising at Home to Cope with Stress

April 9, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Juliana G. Berfield, PhD

Regular exercise helps maintain your well-being and can be especially necessary during times of acute stress. Working out — or performing moderate to vigorous physical activity that elevates your heart rate and activates muscles — can have numerous positive effects on your health, both physically and emotionally. Exercise has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, and many people living with cancer look to exercise to help them cope with the stress of their diagnosis and treatment. 

In light of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, patients and their loved ones may be experiencing even more stress from concerns related to the coronavirus and its effects. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) presently recommends the practice of social distancing, or avoiding close contact with others, as well as densely populated events or areas, gym-goers may be wondering how they can maintain their routines.  

Even when your gym or other exercise facility is not available, there are still lots of ways to stay active and exercise from home. Juliana Garcia Berfield, PhD, from Dana-Farber’s Leonard P. Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies, provides tips for patients (and non-patients) to exercise at home.

If my gym is closed, what should I do instead?

If you typically use weights or other equipment for certain exercises at the gym, you may be able to improvise with items found in your house. For example, if you wanted to do bicep curl repetitions, you could use personal or household items, like water bottles or a heavy book, instead. You can also modify the workout to use your own body weight for resistance.

Some exercises don’t require any additional equipment, like wall sits, squats, chair sits, lunges, pushups, triceps dips, planks, sit-ups, and similar calisthenics. You can find more exercise tips in this blog post.

How can I stick to an indoor exercise plan?

Finding motivation to exercise at home may be more challenging, but creating a schedule and dedicating time for working out can help you create a new routine. Place the schedule somewhere you will see it often, like the fridge, and set a reminder alarm on your phone or other personal devices.

Once you establish a routine of exercising, it becomes easier to stick to because your body and mind begin to crave the positive benefits during or after the workout. Partnering with a friend (even if virtually) may also help you hold yourself accountable. Lastly, changing into appropriate workout clothing or laying it out for the next day is another way to get into a workout-mindset.  

How long should I work out, and how often?

Thirty minutes is usually enough time for a good workout, though you should keep in mind you’ll need to allow yourself some time for warming up and cooling down. It’s really important to do this to avoid injury. You should try to workout at least three times a week.

With clearance from their cancer care team, patients in active treatment can begin or continue to still exercise but remember to pay attention to your body. Be mindful of your limits and use gentler modifications as needed.

Working out at home

Safety tips:

  • Be aware of slippery surfaces such as hardwood floors, or working out in socks.
  • Rearrange as needed to make an open and safe space for you to exercise, away from sharp objects or things you may trip over.

Begin with a 3-5-minute warm up.

  • Marching in place, elevating knees, and/or hamstring curls while adding arms reaching up and across the body;
  • Side lunges (slow and small)
  • Cat-cow spinal tucks
  • Neck, shoulder and arm rolls
  • Light jumping jacks

Perform 30 minutes of cardiovascular activity and/or strength training exercises.

Circuit training, as the name suggests, involves different exercise circuits that can be repeated 2-3 times. By using compound movements — that is, working different combinations of your upper body, lower body, and core the same time — you get more “bang for your buck” with your workout.

Weights are optional. If needed, you can improvise at home with items like water bottles, cans, binders, or books. Make sure they are safe to hold.

Rest for 1-3 minutes between circuits. To increase your heart rate and add more cardio activity, jog in place or do jumping jacks between circuits.

Circuits that you can do at home or at your desk:

Circuit A

1. Sumo goblet squat / 10-15 reps

Using both hands to hold a dumbbell or weight close to your chest, step your feet out in an extra wide stance and squat down deeply while holding the weight, bracing your core, keeping your chest up and pushing your weight into your heels. If you can do so, try to squat low enough so that your thighs are parallel to the floor. Lift yourself back up out of the squat, squeezing your glutes. Repeat 10-15 times.

2. Push-ups, either on your counter or a bench; knees or toes / 10-15 reps

3. Hip bridge lifts / 10-15 reps

On your back, knees bent and feet on floor, press heels/squeeze glutes and lift your hips, and let hips slowly drop to floor back up to starting position. Repeat 10-15 times.

Repeat circuit twice.

Circuit B

1. Reverse lunges with side twist / 10-15 reps, each side, or split lunge (or for beginners, stepping back the same leg for entire rep without twist or weight)

Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, holding a weight out in front of you. Bracing your core, take a larger step back with one foot. Plant your foot for stability and slowly lower into the lunge until both legs are bent in right angles. As you lower, slowly rotate and twist your torso toward the side of your front foot. Slowly return your upper body to center, straightening your legs and rising up out of lunge. Return to standing position. Repeat 10-15 times each side.

2. Standing row with triceps extension / 10-15 reps

Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding medium weights against each side of your body. Bend your knees slightly and hinge forward at the hips until your torso is at a 45-degree angle, letting your arms and weights dangle under your shoulders. While engaging your core and keeping your neck neutral, pull weights into your ribs, keeping your elbows back and arms close to your side. Then, extend your elbows, pressing back with weights until your elbows are no longer bent. Hold for a beat and then bend your elbows to return dumbbells to your ribs. Slowly lower weights to each side of your body while also lifting your torso back upright. Repeat 10-15 times.

3. Standing lateral leg lifts / 10-15 reps, each side

Stand behind a sturdy chair with feet shoulder-width apart, holding on for balance. You can use a countertop or wall for support, too, or put hands on hips for a balance challenge. Brace your core and lift one leg out to the side and up a few inches, keeping toes pointed straight ahead. Supporting your weight with your standing leg, hold your raised leg for 1-3 seconds before slowly lowering it back down. Repeat 10-15 times, each side.

Repeat circuit twice.

Finish your workout with a 5-minute (or more) cooldown and stretch session.

You can perform many of the same stretches you would at your gym right at home in your living room, or anywhere that’s comfortable. Lay out a yoga mat or towel on the floor, and don’t forget to scan your space again to remove anything you might trip over.  

Some stretches use props from your home, like chairs, couches, and doorways. Options include:

  • Hamstring stretch: seated, extend leg forward, hinging from your hips, pushing hips back as you press extended heel into ground.
  • Seated figure four: Sitting at the edge of the chair, bend one knee and rest ankle on opposite tight/closer to opposite knee, making a “figure four” with your legs. Lean forward as your bent knee drops down and away from you for further stretch if possible.
  • Shoulders and neck rolls
  • Cat-cow tucks
  • Side bending with arms extended overhead
  • Deep breaths!

Adding mindfulness meditation after your exercise session can be a nice way to end your work out as well. Take deeper breaths and allow your mind to calm down as your body finds some stillness. Focus on your breath, and if a thought or something else distracts you, simply start again. Even in unsettling times, find gratitude in being able to be here and now, or for anything in your life that brings you joy. Remember that self-care is a gift you can give yourself.

About the Medical Reviewer

Juliana Berfield joined the Zakim Center in 2017 as a Movement Instructor. Since 2000, she has taught various movement classes including Aerobics, Step, Kick Boxing, Core, Muscle Conditioning, and different Resist-a-Ball ® class styles. Juliana has certifications in Personal Training, Mat Pilates, Yoga for Cancer, and as a Cancer Exercise Specialist.