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You can crunch in the gym until your butt leaves a permanent imprint in the mat, but if you’re weighed down by stress, your belt buckle isn’t likely to budge.
“When you’re stressed, your body releases cortisol, a hormone that causes visceral fat to accumulate,” says Carol A. Shively, PhD, professor of pathology and comparative medicine at Wake University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Her research shows that animals with the most social stress develop more fat in the abdomen, and it’s expected that people respond in the same way. The more stress you’re under, the more likely you are to need that bigger belt.
So, how do you keep your stress —and your physique — in check? Relax your body and mind with our exclusive “get happy fast” techniques.
1. Relax Your Breath. “When you take a deep breath, you force the diaphragm to engage, which sends the ‘all clear’ signal to the nervous system and triggers the relaxation response,” explains Kate Hanley, author of The Anywhere, Anytime Chill Guide: 77 Simple Strategies for Serenity. Practice a technique known as the “humming bee’s breath” to zap stress before bed. The buzzing sound you create has a naturally calming effect on the nervous system to help soothe the body and mind. Here’s how to do it:
- Sit comfortably with a straight spine.
- Place your hands gently over your eyes to shut out the light. Rest your index fingers on your brow to calm your thoughts, and your pinkie fingers on your cheeks as a reminder to keep them soft. Use your thumbs to plug your ears to silence any sound. Let your elbows rest downward.
- Keep your lips gently closed, with your teeth parted slightly – this enables you to hear the buzzing vibration more distinctly in the brain. Keep your jaw relaxed.
- Exhale all the air out of your lungs. Inhale through your nose, then exhale slowly while making a steady humming, buzzing sound. This is one round.
- Repeat 10 times. Each time, let the sound fill your whole head, heart and body.
2. Act Like A Boss. A study from UCLA found that people in leadership positions have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol – 27 percent lower, on average, than lower-ranking subordinates. The reason? Leaders feel more in control of their circumstances than followers do, say researchers, adding that simply thinking that you’re in control (whether this is true or not) changes the way your brain responds to stress, making you more resilient.
3. Make exercise a priority to bask in the surge of endorphins (released during your sweat sessions), which will help keep pesky stress hormones (like cortisol) at bay. Look forward to every workout by starting strong. Plan your favorite exercise or tune for the beginning of your workout. Knowing that you’re about to spend the first three minutes of “leg day” listening to your favorite big-haired, leotard-wearing 80s rock band (we won’t judge), for example, will pump you up to hit the gym hard.
4. Let go of clutter. It’s hard to relax when your space could double as the setting on an episode of Hoarders. A cluttered home or workout area contributes to a cluttered mind. “Every time you look at an object in your home, it can lead to a thought or a feeling, so you want to surround yourself with that which makes you feel positive,” explains Christine Hohlbaum, author of The Power of Slow: 101 Ways to Save Time in Our 24/7 World. “Plus, piles of objects can create stress because they feel like another thing on your already-long to-do list.” Eliminate chaos by setting aside just 10 minutes every night to clean up the clutter around your bedroom, workspace or workout area. Little “turbo cleaning sessions” won’t drain or overwhelm you the way an entire “Cleaning Day” might.
5. And while you’re at it, get rid of your “fat” jeans and any other clothes that don’t fit anymore. “Keeping them around can mean you’re holding on to the possibility that you may wear them again,” says Hohlbaum. “Removing the clothes from your closet helps wipe out that mindset.”
6. Tell the truth about how far you turn the dial in spin class (we’ve all exaggerated at some point!). According to a 2012 study conducted by the University of Notre Dame, the average American tells 11 lies per week. But when study participants were asked to tell just three fewer lies every week, they experienced fewer headaches and sore throats, as well as reduced tenseness and anxiety, possibly due to relieved levels of stress.
7. Keep a workout blog. Journal your workouts, or post a gym picture each day to Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. When you let others know about your accomplishments, you will feel more accountable and be more motivated to make time for exercise.
8. Tune up your mood by taking a time-out to rock out to your favorite music — yes, even the embarrassing stuff! In a study conducted at Sweden’s University of Gothenburg, researchers found that a group of subjects who listened to self-chosen music for 30 minutes daily experienced lower levels of cortisol after two weeks than a comparison group that relaxed without any tunes. Researchers noted that the more the subjects enjoyed their music, the higher the benefits they experienced, so go ahead and crank that “Gangnam Style,” sexy lady!
9. Visualize. When everything hits the fan, close your eyes and imagine a serene, relaxing place, such as a lush forest during a rainfall. Engage all your senses to hear, feel, touch and smell the scene, and focus on the way that the calm environment makes you feel. You can also think back to the last time you felt complete relaxation and set yourself back in that scene — feeling a positive emotion in combination with a mental image will boost your visualization experience.
10. Volunteer. Reaching out to help others can boost your mental and physical health, as well as help buffer stress, reports a study from the Corporation for National and Community Service. To get involved and give your body a workout, sign up for a charity run.
11. Take your posture picture. Maintaining proper posture is key for preventing pain and injuries, boosting your flexibility, reducing the stress you place on your spine, as well as improving your breathing (which leads to reduced stress levels). Think you’ve got good posture? Try this exercise and see for yourself:
- Stand in front of a wall with bare feet, keeping what you consider to be your very best posture.
- Recruit a friend to take four images of you: front, back and either side.
- Print the pictures out, one to a sheet.
- Draw dots on the pictures like this: front side — between your feet and on your nose; back side —between your feet and shoulder blades; side views – on your anklebone and ear.
- Fold each paper in half along the dots.
- Analyze your photos: are the two halves of your body the same? Do you lean forward, back or to one side? Does your head jut forward like a turtle? Does your pelvis tilt forward or back?
- Make note of your imbalances, then work to correct them. Take more photos next month and compare your progress over time.
12. Bag it. Toss together dry-roasted peanuts, slivered almonds, sunflower seeds and roasted pumpkin seeds. Besides its high levels of the antioxidant vitamin E, this mix is packed with energizing B-vitamins. It’s also loaded with magnesium, which plays a role in relaxation and maintaining a healthy blood pressure. To satisfy your sweet tooth and boost antioxidant levels, sprinkle in a few dark chocolate chips. Limit yourself to a quarter cup of this treat, which contains about 200 calories.
13. Warm up a bowl of plain oatmeal prepared with low-fat milk. Boost flavor with a dash of cinnamon or a few fresh cranberries. “The fiber in oatmeal slows the absorption of glucose into your blood stream, which will help sustain your energy levels and avoid quick dips in blood sugar, which can leave you hungry and irritable,” explains Megan Madden, MS, a registered dietitian in New York City. This snack is also a great afternoon pick-me-up: carbohydrates stimulate the brain to produce more serotonin, which can have a positive effect on your mood and sleep.
14. Break up with your critics. If you’re hoarding negative friends, naysayers, or people who hold you back from accomplishing your fitness goals or make you feel stressed, it’s time to wheel in the dump truck.
15. Try the “cooling breath.” This technique will chill your body, so practice it after a sweaty workout, or when you feel anxious and your body begins to overheat.
- Sit in a cross-legged position.
- Deeply inhale and exhale through the nose two or three times to prepare.
- Roll the tongue, curling the sides in towards the center to form a tube. Stick the end of your tongue out between pursed lips. If you can’t roll your tongue, just purse your lips to make a small “o” shape with your mouth.
- Inhale through the tube of the tongue.
- Exhale through the nose.
- Repeat five to 10 times.
Research shows that individuals who practice mindfulness — being completely in touch with the present moment – have a higher shot at dropping pounds, boosting their immune system, improving their memory and cutting stress. Here’s how you can do it:
16. Concentrate on one task at a time. In the gym, focus on getting through each individual rep instead of thinking about the entire set that’s ahead of you. Feel your muscles respond to each repetition and stay in the present moment.
17. Add pauses to your day. Start with only a few minutes a day and work your way up. Use this time to close your eyes, take deep breaths and calm your thoughts.
18. Cut distractions. Try a workout with no music, or eating away from the TV. Without anything to divert your attention, you’ll find it easier to listen to your thoughts.
19. Go for a mindful walk. Turn your focus away from the past or future, and pay attention to your pace, the rhythm of your stride, the feeling of the ground beneath your feet, and the smell of nature around you.
20. Be your own cheerleader. Calm feelings of anxiety with relaxing self-talk. Focus on positive outcomes, and feed your brain solutions rather than worries. Try these:
- “I am doing everything necessary to solve the problem.”
- “I will get through this.”
- “I will push myself to get it done.”
- “I can handle this. I’ve done this before and have succeeded.”
- “I will feel proud of myself once I get through this.”
- “I will close my eyes, take a deep breath and try again.”
21. Enjoy an active stay-cation. Avoid burdening your finances and stressing over cash during your spring break by keeping it close to home. Head for a hike in a local park with your family, or look into community programs that offer fitness-related activities (such as yoga, exercise classes, indoor swimming or rock climbing) for a minimal fee.
22. Get a furry co-worker. It might sound wacky, but a new study published in the International Journal of Workplace Health Management found that employees who brought their dogs to work experienced increasingly lower stress levels throughout the day, while their dog-less colleagues reported feeling more stressed as they clocked hours.
Set up a place for your furry pal the day before you bring them in (try a pillow or a dog bed), and direct them to their designated “place” at the beginning of your shift. This will allow your pet to feel safe rather than territorial, and encourage them to stay put in a place of their own while you take care of business. And don’t forget to prioritize regular exercise breaks throughout the day – for you and your pup!
23. Turn out the lights. Overexposure to bright lights not only keeps you up at night, but can also contribute to higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, suggests a study published in the journal Nature. When researchers exposed mice to extended periods under bright light for two weeks, they also found the critters suffered depression-like symptoms and had a harder time learning and remembering new tasks. Though more research is needed on humans, the study authors offer this simple guideline for keeping your mood stable: get more bright light during the day and limit it at night.
24. Get on top of a table (totally not what you’re thinking!). Research from the Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine shows that weekly Swedish massages (more intense than light-touch massages, but not as powerful as the deep tissue variety) are linked to decreased levels of the cortisol hormone. They’re also a great way to recover after an intense training session in the gym. Make time to massage out the kinks!
25. Unfriend your mom on Facebook. Break it to her this way: according to new research from the University of Edinburgh Business School, having a large online social circle increases stress, and adding parents or employers results in the greatest levels of anxiety. Tell her you’re doing it for health reasons, not because she comments with a heart symbol after every, single one of your status updates.
26. Get an early start. When they compared early birds to night owls across various age groups, Toronto-area researchers confirmed that people who wake up early are more chipper and satisfied with life than those who linger under the covers.
27. Invest in multitasking gadgets to avoid acquiring too much “stuff.” For instance, use your smartphone as your music player while you sweat it out, buy a gym bag that does double duty as a weekend bag, and stick with a blender that doubles as a food processor.
28. Practice three-part breathing. Most of us use only a fraction of our lungs when breathing, but this technique capitalizes on your lungs’ full capacity. Plus, a deeper breath means more oxygen, which means more energy and less stress.
- Lie face up on the floor.
- Exhale long and slow — purse your lips and imagine blowing out of a straw to expel the last drop of air.
- Inhale through your nose and imagine the breath first filling your belly. Pause for a moment.
- Continue inhaling and feel your rib cage inflate. Pause.
- Finish inhaling by imagining the breath filling the top lobes of your lungs, which extend all the way up to the collarbone.
- Expel all the air out through pursed lips, and repeat five to seven times.
29. Fuel your day. Top plain, low-fat yogurt with diced kiwi. “Yogurt is rich in zinc, while kiwi is a vitamin C powerhouse, and both of these nutrients help to support immune function,” says Madden. “Plus, boosting your intake of vitamin C–rich foods may help reduce cortisol levels.”