Simple Physical Routines for Successful Stress Management

Posted 06.24.2020

Over the past month, I’ve been running two or three online sessions a week with groups of leaders to provide them with some reference points and space to think about how to lead in our current environment. Leadership is always challenging. It’s more so during a pandemic when work routines and business plans are completely disrupted. It’s even more challenging during a much needed but very intense period of protests, conversations and consideration in service of establishing anti-racist policies and practices that ensure equality and dignity for all.

Recognizing my own stress levels rising, I’ve been asking the groups in my sessions to use the chat function to describe how they’re feeling. The following list is verbatim from one of those sessions and is representative of what I’ve been hearing in all of them:

  • angry
  • anxious
  • anxious, flustered
  • frustrated
  • upset
  • confused
  • understanding 
  • a bit anxious
  • disappointed

2020 has been a year of unprecedented stress for all of us and it’s only June. Realistically, given where we are with the pandemic, the economy, the protests and a highly contested and consequential election coming up in November, the stress inducers are not going to taper off anytime soon. Without mitigation, all of that can leave you and your team members in a state of chronic fight or flight. As I show in the accompanying chart, the impact of that, as physiological systems elevate and lower, is dramatic for both short-term performance and long-term health and well-being.

chronic flight or fight

In this week’s post and over the next couple of weeks, I want to share with you some of the simple, proven and immediately actionable steps that you and your team members can take to reduce what scientists call your allostatic load – the wear and tear on your body and your brain as you’re exposed to chronic fight or flight conditions.   

In the coming weeks, I’ll address mental, relational and spiritual routines that make a huge difference in reducing your allostatic load. This week, I want to start with three basic physical routines that are essential to stress management – eating, moving and sleeping. With thanks to Tom Rath for the simple organizational framework he offered in his 2013 book, Eat, Move, Sleep, here are some best practices in each of those categories that I learned in doing the research for my own book, Overworked and Overwhelmed and how you can leverage them in our current operating environment.


Keep it real – As much as you can, avoid food that comes out of a box or a bag as it’s generally been processed to the point where much of the nutritional value is removed. Instead, focus on real foods like nuts, whole grains, vegetables, fruits and fresh or frozen meat and fish. Don’t like to shop or cook? Try some of the many meal delivery services that focus on whole, real foods.

Plan – A lot of the folks I’m talking with are struggling with their diets because they’re in so many online meetings and end up snacking instead of stopping for a real meal. Take some time to plan your eating by looking at your calendar for compression points in the coming week and identifying the spots where you’ll need a quick and healthy meal you can either eat cold or heat up in a few minutes.

Prep – While you’re planning, do some prepping. Do a little cooking in batch over the weekend can set you up with meal size portions that you can pull from the freezer or fridge during or after a busy day of Zooming.

High H2O ­– There are lots of reasons you should be drinking water throughout the day especially when you’re working from home. Your brain and the rest of your body will thank you if you do.

Low caffeine – A couple of cups of coffee or tea in the morning can help get you going and focus your thinking; nothing wrong with that. You do want to watch your caffeine intake as the day progresses so you’ll be set up for a good night of sleep. Here are some caffeine guidelines from the FDA to keep in mind.


Get up – There’s a reason why the Apple Watch you may be wearing reminds you to get up and move every hour. Too much prolonged sitting can lead to obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. And, as you’ve likely noticed if you’ve been on Zoom after Zoom while working from home, it can also reduce your mental focus. If you haven’t already done so, start taking movement breaks of at least 5 minutes every hour. Better yet, get a standing desk and a headset so you can walk around during your calls.

Get out – There are some upsides to working from home, but one of the downsides is you’ve lost the variety of mental input you get when you travel back and forth to your office. Give your brain a break and some time for unconscious thought by getting your body out of your home office and into your backyard or neighborhood.

Work out – In addition to getting up and getting out, you need to work out. Do what you can to develop a workout routine that mixes cardiovascular endurance, strength building and flexibility enhancement. While my regular fitness classes have been closed during the first months of the pandemic, I’ve been amazed and pleased by the range of online resources that help me check these boxes.


Seven hours minimumThe research tells us that 95% of people need at least seven hours a sleep a night. If you think you can get by with less and be productive in the short run while reaching your full life expectancy in the long run, then you’re in the 5% of the population that has a rare genetic mutation that enables them to get by with less. The odds are that you’re not in the five percent. If you’re not getting seven hours a night, start moving in that direction.

No news after dinner – One way to get better sleep is allow your fight or flight response to spin down rather than up. To do that, avoid consuming the news of the day after dinner. It will still be there when you wake up and your brain won’t be bouncing all over the place as you try to fall asleep.

Watch the booze – As good as that red wine or tequila around dinner time tastes, I’m finding that as I get older, I need to keep it to a reasonable sized glass if I want to sleep well throughout the night. The same is likely true for you as well.

No screens in bed – Once you’re in bed, don’t pick up your phone to read. I used to do this all the time and wondered why I couldn’t fall asleep. As it turns out, smartphones emit a frequency of light that seriously messes with your circadian rhythm, melatonin level and other physiological aspects of falling asleep. No screens in bed.

So, there you have it – some best practices for eating, moving and sleeping that will help you manage your allostatic load during these unusually stressful times. My hope is that you’ve found a couple of new routines here that will work for you. Going deep on a few and grooving new behaviors is way more effective than trying to go broad on all of them at once. Pick a few that work for you. And, in the weeks to come, stay tuned for some simple and applicable ideas for mental, relational and spiritual routines that can help you manage the load.

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