Believe it or not, one of the best ways to chill out is to work up a sweat. Why? So your body can release endorphins, the powerful, morphine-like hormones that endow a sense of optimism and relaxation (without the addiction).
Besides helping you re-energize and channel euphoria, endorphins also block pain, which coincides with another effect of getting the heart rate up through exercise: a reduction in your stress hormone levels.
Runners aren't the only ones who can get a natural high. Scores of studies have proven that any kind of aerobic exercise that challenges your hearts and lungs is practically guaranteed to put you in a better mood.
The Basic Prescription
If your goal is stress relief, aim for 30 to 40 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise, like walking, or 15 to 20 minutes of intense exercise. (Strength-training isn't as effective as cardio workouts.) Try to do this every day. Of course, the more you exercise, the better for your stress levels, but the biggest boosts in mood actually come from your first steps.
That positive outlook that you have by the end of your kickbutt Zumba workout? It'll stay with you for the next four to six hours. Keep it up for 10 or 15 weeks, and you'll start to make long-term changes. (Want an extra boost of motivation? Try personal training with a licensed professional.)
To counter those really tough days at work (or at home with the kids), you'll want a super intense workout—something like plyometrics, kickboxing, or spinning. Research from the University of Missouri-Columbia shows that, among women, high-intensity exercise was better than lower-intensity exercise at reducing anxiety.
Calm the Mind-Body
Whether or not you chant "Om," performing yoga poses or sun salutations will have a calming, stress-relieving effect on both your mind and body. Find camaraderie in a group class, or enjoy a personally tailored session with private yoga instruction.
Yoga is one of the most powerful practices for mental clarity and stress management. Part of this comes from the focus on breath that is integral to yoga. By being aware of and controlling your breath, you can begin to quiet your mind. In addition, performing poses—in any yoga style, from ashtanga to vinyasa—demands mental and physical concentration as you try to balance your body. In the process, you clear your mind of everyday stresses.
Work Out, Get a Raise?
You've probably enjoyed the wave of self-confidence that overtakes you toward the end of a workout. Now researchers at the University of Bristol in the U.K. have found that exercise makes you both happier and more productive at work.
Studying a group of 200 workers at the university, at a pension company and an IT firm, the researchers compared people's general mood on days when they exercised to days when they didn't. They discovered that exercise not only caused people to feel less stressed on days they exercised, but the people felt equally less stressed on non-exercise days.
Even more surprising, most people performed better at work. Nearly two-thirds reported better time management and better interpersonal performance. People felt more motivated at work, better able to concentrate and problem-solve at work, and more able to meet deadlines.