By Alla Byrne
April 22, 2009

If the hectic holiday season and economic slump are making you tense, try exercise-not eggnog-to improve your mood.

We all know about the physical perks of working out-leaner body, stronger heart-but the mental benefits are just as important. Exercise can boost your mood because it ups production of endorphins, the brain's feel good hormone. It also lowers levels of stress hormones, like cortisol. Bottom line: a sweat session can help your brain and body cope better with anxiety.

"The big impact of physical activity on stress is people feel better, think clearer and are more productive," says Daniel Hughes, Ph.D., Instructor in the Department of Behavioral Science at M.D. Anderson. In addition, staying active improves your self-confidence, helps you sleep better and combats symptoms associated with depression.

Divert Yourself with Exercise

"People seem to get the stress reduction effect from exercise just from the distraction of doing the activity," says Hughes. While you'll get mood-boosting benefits no matter what the workout, it helps if you enjoy yourself at the same time. If you're a sports buff, join a local league. Love running? Train for a 5K. If you like what you're doing, you'll be more likely to stick with it and less likely to focus on your day-to-day hassles.

Moderate Activity Is All it Takes

You don't have to workout like a maniac to sweat your worries away. In fact, overly intense exercise routines can have the opposite effect and actually increase stress because they can lead to strain, discomfort and exhaustion. Getting your heart rate up to a moderate level is ideal. According to Hughes, "you know you're at about the right intensity when you're having a conversation and you can only get four to seven words out in a breath."

Make Exercise a Priority

When life gets hectic, exercise tends to be the first thing cut from the "to-do" list. If you can't find 45 consecutive minutes to workout, you'll still get the stress-busting benefits by incorporating short bursts of physical activity into your daily routine. Current health recommendation guidelines from American College of Sports Medicine say that bouts of exercise can be accumulated throughout the day. If you have pockets of free time, put it to good use and get moving. "Instead of going out to lunch, take a walk with some friends," says Hughes. "You'll find it should reduce your stress level and give you more energy."