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De-stress Your Day

Body+Soul, April/May 2007

Exercise is one of the most important tools for battling stress. Even when practiced for short durations, regular periods of physical activity can help restore hormone balance and calm your nervous system. When you experience a stressful situation, cortisol and adrenaline ramp up your heart rate within seconds, heightening your mental acuity and rallying your muscle strength. The problem, of course, is that too much marshalling of these forces can overwhelm the body, especially when you don't take measures to counter the effects.

"When you feel stressed for longer periods of time, the sympathetic nervous system continues to operate in overdrive, and your body may begin to suffer," says Dr. James S. Gordon, founder and director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C. "If you're in this state of fight or flight for long enough, the resulting muscular tension can trigger backaches and headaches. You might also experience a weakened immune system, digestive problems, fatigue, and insomnia or depression."

Exercise can go beyond just toning muscles and burning calories to actually help rebuild your strength -- inside and out. "It can also aim deeper into the systems that need the most help," says fitness expert and Body+Soul contributor Ellen Barrett. "To undo the ill effects of stress, a blend of calming and energizing exercises will support your overstimulated nervous system."

In the following 10-minute routine, Barrett combines inversions to promote blood flow to the brain and more invigorating exercises to increase circulation. Each set of movements centers on the spine, which plays a key role in the release of tension.

Not convinced that 10 minutes will do the trick? Remember that relieving tension is the goal here. "When you're overstressed," says Barrett, "your intention is to repair the body -- not give it a hard-core workout."

Legs Up the Wall
What It Does
This mild inversion soothes the psyche, opens the back and stretches the neck. "The pose lets gravity do the work to de-stress the body," says Barrett. "Increasing blood flow to the brain, heart, and thyroid gland, it has an invigorating yet relaxing effect."

How to Do It
Sit with your left shoulder facing the wall. Roll onto your back and swing the left leg and then the right leg up the wall. Extend both legs straight up, with your head, shoulders, and back resting on the ground. Your body should form a 90-degree angle. If tight hamstrings make this too hard, move your pelvis away from the wall until your legs feel comfortable. For more support, put a bolster or pillow under your hips and lower back. Relax for one to five minutes.

Around the World
What It Does
When everyday crises hit (like morning traffic or a contentious conversation), feelings of stress often gather along the spine, primarily in the neck, shoulders, and lower back. Used as a warm-up routine by modern dancers, this exercise loosens those areas so energy can flow more freely.

How to Do It
Stand tall with feet about 4 feet apart, toes turned out, and arms extended like airplane wings. Exhale and reach both arms up, leaning your torso toward the right. In the same breath, rotate the torso so your belly faces the floor. Holding this position, sweep your body to the right side, slightly bending the knees. Reverse direction. Do four times in each direction, alternating.

Helicopter
What It Does
Relaxes the hips and lower back, inverts the body to promote blood flow, and engages the core.

How to Do It
Begin in a shoulder-stand position. Use both hands to support your lower back. Keeping both knees straight, point your toes and split your legs as far apart as you can, bringing your right leg toward your head and your left leg in the opposite direction. Take a breath, and in a circular motion, rotate the legs out to the sides, pulling the left leg up toward your head. Repeat in the opposite direction. Repeat 10 times.

Jump Switch
What It Does
Promotes strong, deep breaths, bringing fresh oxygen into the body, and gets the heart pumping, both of which promote feelings of well-being.

How to Do It
Begin in a runner's lunge with right foot forward and between your hands; place your fingertips on the floor directly under your shoulders, or use a set of yoga blocks as shown for easier movement. Take a deep breath and, in one strong action, jump and switch the lead leg so the left foot is forward between the hands. Pause for a second and then jump and switch legs again. Repeat this back-and-forth movement 10 times.

Text by Matthew Solan