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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.

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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.

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

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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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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.

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