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Exercise Stress Away

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.


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