Quick quiz: You're ready to scream after the end of a hectic workday, but a long list of must-do holiday tasks still looms ahead. You fight traffic to get to the mall -- where someone cuts you off to grab the last parking space. You need stress relief and you need it NOW. What's your best option?
A. Scarf down the box of chocolates you've been saving for just such an emergency. B. Go home and melt into a hot bath. C. Head to the day spa for a pampering massage. D. Hit the gym and crank out 20 minutes on the treadmill.
The answer: D. We don't recommend such intensive chocolate therapy. And while massages and long soaks in the tub may feel great, exercise is the best de-stressor over the long term, experts say.
When she needs relief from the grind of delivering major proposals, Dana Marlowe, 33, of Washington, D.C., makes some noise. "I cruise right into my toddler’s playroom, and I just jam out with his toys -- the xylophone, the baby piano. I almost have 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star' down," says Marlowe, a technology accessibility consultant.
This kind of casual music-making can short-circuit the stress response, research shows, and keep it from becoming chronic. Stress starts in the brain and then...
Along with the well-known physical benefits, exercise has been shown to "increase one's sense of well-being, mood state, self-esteem, stress responsivity, (and) body image, as well as decreased depression and anxiety," says Jesse Pittsley, PhD, a spokesperson for the American Society for Exercise Physiologists.
Just what is it about exercise that makes a person feel good (other than those toned abs)? And what are the best moves to do when you're feeling stressed, especially when time is at a premium? Three experts gave WebMD some answers.
The Stress Response
"The human body has evolved over the centuries. While we were designed to use our large muscles in difficult environments -- hunting, defending ourselves against enemies, enduring the harshness of weather, the problem is we don't live that way any more," says C. Eugene Walker, a professor of psychology at the University of Oklahoma. "We are very sedentary, and our problems are more mental and social rather than physical."
So when we encounter stressful situations, the result is pent-up physical reactions, says Walker, author of Learn to Relax: Proven Techniques for Reducing Stress, Tension, and Anxiety -- and Promoting Peak Performance.
"It's like driving a Ferrari in a 20 mph speed limit," says Walker. "When (we are) presented with a stressful situation, adrenaline is released into the bloodstream, our muscles get tense as we prepare to react, blood pressure is increased, and breathing becomes shallow and rapid."
"Essentially, we are stressed mentally, which doesn't require a physical response. We are stepping on the gas and the brake at the same time, producing fatigue, tension, stress, and over time, chronic diseases like heart disease."
The solution: Regular exercise.
"Basically, when we exercise, we get back to what our bodies were designed to do," says Walker. "We increase our heart rate, take in more oxygen, our blood circulates better and faster."