The Best Workouts to Banish Stress

Unclench your fist, set down the stress ball, and pick up your gym bag. A sweat session will help clear your head, boost your mood, and relieve built-up muscle tension

April 8, 2011
woman doing Pilates on a reformer
Fitness Defrazzlers

Using the excuse "I'm too stressed to exercise!" is like saying you're too tired to sleep or too hungry to eat. A workout is actually the perfect way to release physical and mental tension while torching calories to boot. "Any time you move, your body is primed to release endorphins," says Liz Neporent, a spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise. It doesn't matter if you're pumping iron, hiking, or doing yoga--any form of physical activity spurs the production of mood-boosting and body-relaxing chemicals in your brain, she says.

Still, not everyone has the same stress-relief style. Some need a laugh, others a scream, others a long, deep breath. Use the following eight workouts to find your ideal way to unwind.

Does stress make you gain? See 7 ways to beat stress fat.

Try the Slim, Calm, Sexy, Yoga workout to banish stress for good!

woman doing yoga sitting in prayer pose

Hanging out in downward dog won't just clear your head--yoga also helps reduce stress at the neurological level. According to researchers at Harvard Medical School, study participants who took part in an 8-week stress-reduction program that included 27 minutes of mindful activity, like meditation exercises and gentle yoga, a day experienced increased gray-matter density in the hippocampus, the part of the brain essential for learning and memory, and decreased gray-matter density in the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with anxiety and stress.

Try It: Decompress with the Slim, Calm, Sexy, Relaxing Yoga Sequence, a soothing routine of 12 poses that will gently engage muscles, relieve tension, and relax the body.

Want more yoga in your life?

woman holding kettlebell
Circuit Training

"Because a circuit is done in a constant flow, it takes your focus away from whatever stress is bothering you. Think of it as meditation in motion," says Jeremy Cheung, an NASM-certified personal trainer and owner of San Francisco's Twisted Twilight fitness studio, who suggests the following routine.

Try It
: Complete the circuit 4 or 5 times as quickly as possible--without sacrificing form--for a total of 17 to 25 minutes, depending on your fitness level.

Cut 100 extra calories per day with these tips.

woman walking near water

Going for a walk offers a physical escape from a stressful situation as well as an opportunity to clear your head--or fill it with new ideas. "If you want to solve a problem, the best thing to do is to go for a walk or run," says Neporent, pointing out that "lightbulb" moments usually occur when we're away from our work and not sitting still. The active, repetitive movement of walking sends your brain into "flow" mode, a mental state of being fully focused on a goal or idea, she explains.

Try It: Walk off stress at the mall, on the treadmill, or in your neighborhood with three flexible (and fat-burning) routines.

Got 8 weeks? Walk off 22.5 pounds.

man running on bridge

In addition to the endorphin rush called "runner's high," a fast-paced cardio workout comes with a stress-relieving bonus: "Moderate to high-intensity exercises like sprints use up more adrenaline, the fight or flight hormone, so you feel calmer at the end of a workout," says Neporent.

Try It: Cover all of your bases with three different 20-minute running workouts that focus on speed, strength, and endurance.

VIDEO: Postrun yoga for flexibility

swimmer in pool getting ready for backstroke

"The water provides a soothing, quiet, and often isolated environment to help relieve stress," says Mariejo Truex, a USA Swimming sports performance consultant. "The rhythmic sound of the breath combined with the kick and pull can also help keep you calm."

Truex recommends moving through a few yoga sun salutations as an on-deck warm-up, then mixing up your lap swim by alternating all four strokes--breaststroke, butterfly, backstroke, and front crawl or freestyle. Focus on time spent in the water instead of distance and on technique and breathing over speed, she says.

Try It: The 30-minute Starter Swimming Workout focuses on form and allows for plenty of rest.

Before you pull on a swimsuit, check out these 6 ways to get legs for days.

fit man kickboxing

If your frazzled state of being is usually accompanied by feelings of frustration, your solution to stress may require a little more oomph. Channel your tension into a calorie-torching workout. Hurl your fist at a punching bag, smack a tennis ball over the net, or fling your foot at a kickboard.

Try It: The Kickboxing Cardio Booster blasts 113 calories in just 10 minutes--that's similar to what you'd accomplish running a mile.

SEARCH: Basic kickboxing moves

fit man doing pushup
No-Equipment Workout

Sometimes getting to the gym, waiting for weight machines, or shelling out cash for a fancy new piece of at-home fitness equipment that takes up half the living room seems only to stress you out more. Instead of fretting over money, time, or space, work with what you already have: your body.

Try It: The Lunch-Break Boot Camp takes you through 15 moves that use your bodyweight as resistance for a do-anywhere head-to-toe workout in 20 minutes.

BONUS: See how to create the perfect backyard gym!

women in a dance class
Dance Class

If all you need is a good laugh or a little social interaction to de-stress, try a workout that hardly feels like exercise. You won't be checking your watch or counting reps at a Zumba, jazz, or ballet class--just watching your feet and yourself in the mirror as you tone your core, thighs, and calves.

Try It: Find the best type of dance for your personality--and a DVD to help you try it at home before signing up for a class.

How many calories do you need to lose or maintain your weight?