How Exercise Can Make You Happy

Which leads us to Woman B. She is also having a bad morning and feeling overwhelmed. Except in her hormonally revved-up state (adrenaline! cortisol!), she decides she is too time-pressed and anxious to work out. Instead, she treats herself to a cookie and a latte. Half an hour later, the sugar and caffeine hit, sending another jolt of cortisol and adrenaline through her body. But her buzz won't last for long. By mid-afternoon, she crashes and feels more stressed than before.

Over time, this kind of chronic stress can erode connections between neurons, leading to a communication breakdown in brain cells. That may partly explain why depressed and anxious people get locked into a negative mind-set. "They lose flexibility and have trouble thinking their way out of a mental rut," Dr. Ratey says.

MoreExercise Your Stress Away

Not so, Woman A. After her workout, she has a sunnier outlook. Stressed or sunny? Which would you rather be?

We thought so. With those benefits in mind, self did an experiment. We recruited four women in the New York metropolitan area who were feeling one or more of the following symptoms: anxiety, stress, insomnia or just plain blah (sound familiar?). None exercised regularly. We consulted clinical psychologists Smits and his Exercise for Mood and Anxiety coauthor, Michael Otto, Ph.D., then asked Laila Sarvarian, head trainer for Camp Gladiator in Dallas, to create a convenient six-week program for each woman, designed to target her mood problems. The outcome: Let's just say the women used phrases like "lifechanging." (And "body-changing"—one woman lost 14 pounds!) Their "Rxercise" prescriptions can launch you into a happier life, too, whatever lies in wait for you today.

MoreHow Yoga Relieves Stress

"I'm Always Stressed Out"

Ariella Schwerd, 24, research assistant

Schwerd's Custom Plan

  • Yoga or pilates, 45 to 60 minutes once a week
  • Running/walking 40 to 60 minutes once a week
  • Zumba or a group fitness class, like Barre Burn (at Equinox) once a week
  • Tai chi once a week
  • Bike or swim 60 minutes once a week
  • Cardio (stair-climbing, elliptical, running) 50 minutes once a week

More: 4 Ways to Bike Your Way Stress-Free

Why The Plan Works

"Aerobic exercise is key to easing stress, while yoga, Pilates and tai chi all emphasize breathing and relaxation," Sarvarian says.

The Science

"Exercise engages neurons in the brain, just like it engages muscles in the body. That raises the brain's stress threshold," Dr. Ratey says. "People who exercise regularly don't respond as dramatically to stress as non-exercisers do. Their heart rate doesn't shoot up as high, and their mood doesn't sink as low."

MoreDon't Worry, Be Happy: Worrying Less Can Lengthen Your Life

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