Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Fitness & Exercise

Font Size

Weight Gain Linked to Stress

Exercise Stress Away
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Craig H. Kliger, MD

Oct. 30, 2000 -- Ask Alison McCormick to rate how stressful the past year and a half has been, and, on a scale of 1 to 10, she'd have to give it a 9 3/4. Easy.


First, the grandmother she'd been closest to passed away. Then she spent several months caring for her mother-in-law, who'd had a stroke. While all this was happening, McCormick, a fourth-grade teacher in Ventura, Calif., was having disagreements with her job-share partner and ended up looking for a new position. Finally, after a difficult search, she landed a new teaching job she loves -- just in time for the after-school arrangements she'd made for her own young children to fall apart.


"If it wasn't one thing, it was another," says McCormick, 39. "And in the midst of it all, I gained over 10 pounds."


The link between stress and weight gain has long been known -- at least to women like McCormick, who can relate tales of how they put on extra pounds during trying times. But in recent years, science also has made a case for the stress-weight gain connection, says Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, a former research fellow at the National Institutes of Health. Now an assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Peeke is the author of a recent book, Fight Fat After Forty. In it, she makes the case that stress likely does play a central role in weight gain by affecting both appetite and the way the body stores fat and offers a fairly simple antidote to the problem. "Exercise," she says, "is the ultimate neutralizer of the effects of stress."

It's Only Natural: Our Innate Response to Stress

Like many people, McCormick has often rewarded herself with food after a stressful day. "I would say to myself, 'I deserve ice cream,'" McCormick says. We usually blame such a response on psychology -- after all, eating is one way we nurture ourselves. But Peeke argues that there also may be a physiological reason. She calls it the "stew and chew" response.


When we experience something stressful, our brains release a substance known as corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which puts the body on alert and sends it into "fight or flight" mode. As the body gears up for battle, the pupils dilate, thinking improves, and the lungs take in more oxygen. But something else happens as well: Our appetite is suppressed, and the digestive system shuts off temporarily. CRH also triggers the release of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which help mobilize carbohydrate and fat for quick energy. When the immediate stress is over, the adrenaline dissipates, but the cortisol lingers to help bring the body back into balance. And one of the ways it gets things back to normal is to increase our appetites so we can replace the carbohydrate and fat we should have burned while fleeing or fighting.

Healthy Living Tools

Ditch Those Inches

Set goals, tally calorie intake, track workouts and more, all via WebMD’s free Food & Fitness Planner.

Get Started

Today on WebMD

Wet feet on shower floor tile
Flat Abs
Build a Better Butt Slideshow
woman using ice pack

man exercising
7 most effective exercises
Man looking at watch before workout
Overweight man sitting on park bench
6-Week Challenges
Want to know more?
Chill Out and Charge Up Challenge – How to help your tribe de-stress and energize.
Spark Change Challenge - Ready for a healthy change? Get some major motivation.
I have read and agreed to WebMD's Privacy Policy.
Enter cell phone number
- -
Entering your cell phone number and pressing submit indicates you agree to receive text messages from WebMD related to this challenge. WebMD is utilizing a 3rd party vendor, CellTrust, to provide the messages. You can opt out at any time.
Standard text rates apply

pilates instructor
jogger running among flowering plants
woman walking
Taylor Lautner