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.
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.
Chill Out With Cardio
Exercise can mean anything from vacuuming to running marathons, but which kind is best for reducing stress?
"All exercise is good, but aerobic exercise is the best when it comes to stress reduction because it does increase oxygen circulation and generally uses the body more effectively and efficiently," says Walker. "Aerobic exercise also produces endorphins, which is a natural chemical similar to morphine that is released in the brain during strenuous exercise."
Endorphins produce a feeling of happiness, thereby reducing stress.
"For maximal endorphin benefit, you should be doing at least 30 minutes of exercise three to four times a week at 60%-80% percent of your maximum heart rate," says Todd Durkin, a spokesman for the American Council on Exercise.
More Stressless Exercises
"While they don't get your heart rate up like cardio, they absolutely reduce the effects of stress, such as short and shallow breathing, by focusing on deep breathing and calming exercises," says Durkin, the 2004 IDEA personal trainer of the year.
The thousands of people around the country who practice these calming techniques can probably vouch for their benefits.
"Although exercises like yoga, Pilates, and tai chi may not produce enough lactic acid to induce a significant endorphin release, this does not hinder their effectiveness," says Pittsley. "These exercises increase strength, flexibility, balance control, and induce numerous psychological benefits."
Add strength training to the mix, and you've got a well-rounded way to tackle stress.
"Whether with ... weights or rubber cords, strength training helps your metabolism, it helps you tone, and it's a great outlet for releasing stress. It's very therapeutic and challenging for your body," says Durkin.
4 Easy Ways to Ease Stress
We know what you're thinking: How on earth can you find time to head for the gym at the most stressful times when you're already scheduled to the max? Those are the perfect times to take a mini-stress break.
Here are a few do-anywhere moves that will help get your heart rate up and your stress level down:
1. Take a hike. "Walk to the water cooler," says Durkin. "Get out of your chair and get your legs moving for a few minutes at a brisk pace."
"Instead of driving around the mall parking lot for 10 minutes looking for that great parking space, save your time, gas money, and health by taking the furthest spot in the lot," suggests Pittsley. "There is nothing like a brisk walk to get your legs moving and heart pumping."
2. Make your lunch break count. "If you have a half-hour lunch, spend 20 minutes of it exercising, and then grab your lunch and eat it at your desk," says Durkin. "You'll feel a lot better in the afternoon after you exercise."
3. HUP, two, three, four. "You might want to close your door before you start, but march in place," says Durkin. "Do high marches to really get your blood going."
4. Chair squats. When you're sitting in your office after a stressful encounter with the boss, chair squats are a quick and easy way to release some energy.
"Activate the large muscles in your legs by doing a set of 10 squats," says Pittsley. "To do this, simply find a chair and slowly lower yourself until your behind slightly touches the chair. Finally, raise yourself back up slowly."
After a set or two, you should feel ready for another round with the boss (or whoever is stressing you out).
Choose Your Weapon
When it comes to stress busting, the bottom line is to do whatever works best for you.
"There's no magic pill. Whatever people enjoy doing is great," says Durkin. "Whether it is power walking, running, Pilates, yoga, or weights, the most important thing is that people carve out three to four times a week when they can exercise for 20-30 minutes and really get their heart rates up to reduce the negative effects of stress and anxiety."