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Middle Management continued...

 

Peeke's own work points to another reason stressed-out women may store fat in the abdomen. "Our research has shown that the fat cells deep in the belly are richer in stress hormone receptors than fat cells elsewhere in the body," Peeke says. "And it makes sense that fat would be stored in the abdomen, close to the liver, where it can be quickly accessed for conversion into energy."

 

That may not only be distressing for some women, but dangerous: A Harvard Medical School study published in the December 1998 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association found that abdominal fat was strongly associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease.

Why exercise helps

The idea that exercise is a crucial tool in the fight against weight gain isn't new. It does, after all, burn calories. But Peeke contends that exercise also is beneficial because it helps cut stress, which in turn helps you keep weight off.

 

"During vigorous exercise, the body secretes biochemicals called beta endorphins, which calm you down and decrease the levels of stress hormones in your body," she says. How much exercise does it take? That depends, Peeke says. "Some people need more vigor than others," she says, "but for some, even a vigorous 10-minute walk will work."

 

Exercise may reduce stress in another way. "Just getting up and moving for five minutes is helpful," says Peeke, "because you have distracted yourself from what's causing you stress and allowed your quiescent body to move and stretch and awaken."

 

Of course, five minutes of exercise may help, but it won't do much if you also hope to burn some calories. For a bigger payoff, Peeke suggests 45 minutes of exercise every day, even if you break it up into 15-minute sessions.

 

For Alison McCormick, the idea of a scientific link between exercise, stress, and weight gain wasn't very surprising. "I intuitively knew that exercise would help me feel less stressed out, and now that I'm running two miles three times a week, I do feel calmer," she says. And, by the way, she's lost 7 pounds.

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