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It happens whenever I’m overwhelmed — the anxious, butterflies-in-my-stomach, can’t-seem-to-stop-moving feeling. Pacing back and forth, forgetting what I went into a room for, being short with those around me.

It happened a few months ago, as I was prepping for my family’s vacation. Despite several lists and an attempt to start packing early, I found myself on the verge of a meltdown as I surveyed everything the four of us needed (or didn’t?) for our five-day cruise. It didn’t help that another Minnesota snowstorm was forecasted and I was worried about our flight being delayed or canceled. The ship would leave port with or without us.

My husband knew that I was reaching my breaking point and tentatively asked, after witnessing me take a few deep breaths, “What about taking a break and going to the gym?”

“No,” I responded without hesitation. “I have too much to do.” An hour later, I changed my mind. A workout was exactly what I needed.

We made the trek to the club, where I felt myself begin to unwind after just a few minutes of warming up. By the time I’d finished a quick strength circuit, the butterflies were gone. A little stretching to wrap things up, and I found myself in an even more peaceful state of mind. In total, the workout took less than 45 minutes, yet I felt saner and more relaxed.

A good sweat session — whether in the weight room, a yoga class, or the sauna, whether it’s 15 minutes or an hour — does the body and mind a whole lot of good. As Experience Life deputy editor Michael Dregni reports in this issue’s “Your Brain on Exercise”:  “Exercise helps our brains balance hormones. John Ratey, MD, believes that, along with alleviating depression, this harmonizing of our hormones also inoculates us against toxic stress and eases anxiety.” (For more on the fascinating ways activity positively influences the brain, see “Your Brain on Exercise”.)

For me, working out and taking care of myself physically is one of the most effective means for staying balanced mentally. It’s during activity when I process my thoughts and emotions and come up with actions or solutions to address tough problems and situations.

I’ve channeled grief through kettlebell swings and yoga sequences, and found creative inspiration while doing interval sprints on the treadmill. I’ve moved through anger and frustration on long runs and walks in nature.

It’s during exercise that I let go of my self-conscious tendencies and get lost in the moment, as I did in my first Zumba class (on the pool deck of said cruise ship — yes, we made it!). Missteps and all, it just felt good to move my body in a new and unexpectedly joyful way.

Exercise doesn’t make me forget about the circumstances that stress me out, but it does help me approach them with a different mindset — one that’s more open-minded and considerate, more patient and compassionate. The bonus is that it helps me stay physically fit, too.

Like exercise, many of the strategies we embrace to improve and manage our health and well-being — eating healthy, getting enough sleep, managing stress — do much more than we might expect. They’re all connected, as functional-medicine doctor Rangan Chatterjee explains in his cover story.

So while working out is my go-to anxiety buster, what works for you may be different. Whatever it is that brings you relief, make space for it — your body and mind will thank you.

Photography by: Sara Rubinstein

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