After a harried afternoon at the office or a tense argument with your partner, you may not feel especially motivated to exercise. But researchers are discovering that a workout is one of the most potent antidotes to stress. "Any exercise that gets your heart rate up helps lower levels of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol," says Mark Liponis, M.D., corporate medical director of Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Mass. Chronic stress causes your body to release greater amounts of these hormones—over time this can lead to headaches, digestive problems, insomnia, depression, and other health issues, says Liponis. Working out doesn't just keep your body's stress response in check, it also promotes the release of endorphins, natural pain-relieving and mood-boosting compounds. "And exercise helps you become more self-aware," says Matthew Cohen, a qigong, tai chi, and yoga teacher, creator of the Qi Gong Fire & Water DVD, and owner of Sacred Energy Arts (sacredenergyarts.com) in Santa Monica, Calif. "You'll learn to recognize the subtle signs that you're stressed—like tension in your neck—and you'll be able to calm yourself before you get frazzled."
MAKE IT MINDFUL. "Exercises that link the mind and body through conscious movement help release blocked energy—what we know as stress," says Cohen. Get started with the following gentle yet effective qigong move, developed by Cohen.
"The expansive motion of your arms as you inhale gathers fresh energy, and the push downward on the exhale releases stress," Cohen says. Contracting your abdominal muscles also strengthens your core and stimulates your digestive organs.
A | Stand with your feet a bit more than shoulder-width apart, your knees slightly bent, and your back straight. Keeping elbows soft, place your hands in front of your belly, a few inches below your belly button, palms facing each other. Round your hands slightly as if you were holding an invisible ball. Inhale and slowly lift your arms out to your sides and up to chin level. Move slowly, as though you're gliding your arms through water.
B | Exhale, turn your palms face down (fingertips pointed toward each other), and press your hands down along the front of your body as though you're pushing a ball through water. Draw your navel in toward your spine as you breathe out.
C | Return hands to starting position, a few inches below your navel.