There’s a time and a place for workouts that leave you drenched in sweat—heart pounding and muscles quivering. But sometimes you don’t want to max out your Garmin Suffer Score or Whoop Strain; sometimes, you want to do feel-good workouts.
That’s true now more than ever, considering how much stress people are under as they deal with the ripple effects of COVID-19. Prolonged mental stress can actually increase the amount of perceived effort people experience while training, which can cause fatigue and soreness that lasts up to four days post-workout, according to research published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Translation: Exercise feels harder in the moment, and the negative effects linger longer.
That doesn’t mean you should throw in the towel on working out if you’re feeling a little stressed. You just need a routine that’ll sustain fitness without so much of an emphasis on intensity. These five workouts will help you work up a sweat without taxing your joints or putting your heart into overdrive.
5 Feel-Good Workouts to Do When You’re Tired and Stressed
1. Fartlek Workout
If you’re an avid runner—or picking up the sport for the first time in a while (or ever), ditch your watch and specific interval training for a fartlek workout. “The word means ‘speed play’ in Swedish,” explains Raj Hathiramani, a RRCA- and USATF-certified running coach at Mile High Run Club in New York, NY. “It’s a type of workout that alternates between slower and faster running to help you become a more efficient runner.” A classic fartlek workout may involve one minute of hard effort followed by one minute of recovery for as many repeats as you’d like, he adds; or you can be more lax with it and pick up the pace at certain checkpoints in your favorite park or during the choruses of every song on your playlist. Feel-good workouts might entail different intensities and protocols depending on your mood and energy level.
2. Lightweight Dumbbell Circuit
Lifting weights doesn’t always have to be about grunting and straining. This dumbbell-only routine “uses the entire body to address some of the most functional movement patterns you use every day,” says Prentiss Rhodes, a NASM-certified personal trainer and C.S.C.S. You’ll need two pairs of dumbbells—one at a weight you can comfortably do 10-12 reps with and one slightly lighter. For each of the drills below, you’ll do 45 seconds of work followed by 15 seconds of rest. Do 2 to 5 circuits total.
- Stepup to bicep curl to overhead press
- Renegade row
- Single-leg deadlift to lateral raise
- T-drill with crawl (In a tabletop position, crawl forward 4 steps, then crawl laterally to the right 4 steps, then return to the midpoint; crawl laterally left 4 steps, then return to the midpoint; crawl back to the starting point)
3. Hatha or Vinyasa Yoga
The true purpose of yoga is less about a killer workout and more about being present in your own body, which can ease stress and boost relaxation. But not all yoga classes are created equal. If you’re looking feel-good workouts that’ll leave you more blissed out than burned out, “hatha yoga is a great place to start, as it’s gentle,” says Erin Motz, a NASM-certified personal trainer and co-founder of Bad Yogi. “So is a vinyasa class that isn’t heated or is labeled ‘gentle’ or ‘moderate.’ Avoid classes that are categorized as power or longer than 60 minutes, and you’ll be able to get the benefits without taxing your body.”
4. Hip-Opening Mobility Flow
Sitting all day (especially working from home) can wreak havoc on your hips, which can throw off your movement patterns in general. “These exercises [below] focus on key muscles in and around the hips: your glutes, piriformis, adductors, and tensor fascia latae to increase your mobility,” says Austin Martinez, director of education for StretchLab. Focus on your breath and technique, and try to increase the reps or duration each time you do the routine.
- Standing hip circles x 5 each side (Lift one knee as high as you can without rounding lower back, then move knee to side; rotate hip inward, then bring leg behind you; return to start).
- Deep squat x 30 seconds (Keep your chest up and knees pressing out.)
- Seated internal hip rotations x 10 each side (In a seated position on the floor with legs slightly bent in front of you, drive one leg down toward the floor without letting your hips come off the ground.)
- Pigeon pose x 30 seconds each side
- Shin box position x 20 seconds each side. (From a seated position on the floor, swing one leg behind you so you create a triangle with the front and back leg. Fold forward and hold, then lean back and hold.)
Going HAM on HIIT workouts too often can be exhausting. If you want similar feel-good benefits without committing to a 45-minute class, try REHIT, or reduced-exertion high-intensity training, which uses supra-maximal intensities over shorter periods, says ACE-certified personal trainer Chris Gagliardi. An ACE study on REHIT featured a 2-minute warmup, 2 x 20-second maximal intensity intervals with 3 minutes of recovery in between, and a 3-minute cooldown for a solid workout that lasted just 8 minutes and 40 seconds. “Any method of exercise can be plugged into this model depending on the type of equipment you have, access to outside space, and what you enjoy: running, walking, cycling, stairs, skipping rope, mountain climbers, etc.,” says Gagliardi.