October 15, 2009

Gut Check

(Photo: tobyotter)

"Get in my belly!" Who could forget those immortal words spoken by one of cinema's most beloved and enduring characters of all time, Fat Bastard, of "Austin Powers" fame? Okay, so maybe I'm overplaying his cinematic significance a tad but the man does make an impression with his size. His professional profile claims he weighs 300 pounds but I think he's vanity sizing.

I used to think that belly fat simply came from eating too much food and swilling too much beer and was content with the knowledge that exercise and diet could improve one's situation should they ever begin to feel that their belly was fast becoming another appendage.

But wait! That's not all there is to belly fat. Did you know that stress can result in increased abdominal fat ("jelly belly" being the technical term generally accepted by the AMA, I believe)? Me neither. And so it appears that there's a whole 'nother reason to pay attention to stress other than just the ho-hum stuff like increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and suppressed immunity (tongue firmly inserted in cheek here).

If you're anything like me (and I sincerely hope you are not for a variety of reasons) you've ben taking all this stress talk in stride. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yadda, yadda, yadda. It's always something. Why, just the other day I was texting while driving my cement truck through the local nitro glycerin factory on the way to pick up my teenager from juvie hall, which was located right next to the EPA superfund site and farmer's market I frequent. No biggie - this is a pretty typical day for me, stress-wise. As I'm waiting for the teen and his parole officer to finish up, I quit texting long enough to scan around the net and come across an article about stressed-out monkeys and increased belly fat. Monkeys and belly fat - who could resist THAT combination?

This study suggests that female monkeys who were lower on the proverbial totem pole in terms of status were more stressed out and as a result tended to have more abdominal fat (hey, I resembled that remark). These monkeys were groomed less often, always on the defensive about the dominant monkey and isolated themselves more from the others in their group. Sound familiar? Work problems? Family issues? Keeping up with the Joneses? And you thought monkeys were always a barrel of laughs.

It appears that stress is not our friend. It's not even like one of those people who dress a little funny and talk to themselves but who you eventually come to like once you get to know them. No, stress is more like that room full of relatives at the holidays that always arrive empty-handed, criticize the meal and then take home all the leftovers (plus some of the silverware). And the longer you're in their company, the worse off you are. Same with stress: a little is okay but any prolonged exposure is really bad for you.

Cortisol has become known as the "stress hormone" and unlike those relatives, it actually serves a few decent purposes and can be beneficial in small, short doses. It's most well known for coming to our rescue in any "fight or flight" episodes we may encounter (say, perhaps a short duration food fight with the relatives at Thanksgiving). Any long term, constant stress situations (like linving with those pesky relatives), however, can have some nasty effects such as high blood pressure, lowered immunity, impaired cognitive functioning, negative impact on both good and bad cholesterol, and decreased bone density and muscle tissue. But the the vain and slack among us, the biggest kahuna of them all is increased abdominal fat. Excess abdominal fat, like no other fat in the body, puts us at risk for more heart attacks and strokes. So if you've been really stressed out and not losing the weight that your doctor keeps telling you to and it feels as if your body is hanging onto that fat with both hands, you may not be as crazy as you think.

So, how do we neutralize this stress and keep those cortisol levels where they belong? You need to learn how to relax your body after the "fight or flight" event has passed - like shutting off the lights when you hear the barbarians...er, relatives knocking at your door. There are lots of stress management techniques that can be helpful in reducing stress that are suggested by people much more in the know about these things than I - yoga, exercise, deep breathing, meditation, music, guided imagery, humor - generally something you enjoy that will take you down a notch and keep you there. Working toward a new low-stress lifestyle is best...just as long as I don't have to work too hard, that is. Don't want to be stressing myself out here.

Cranky Fitness Stress Survey Time: How do you plan on dealing with the stress of the upcoming holidays or just life in general? Any suggestions? I'll be taking notes - which beats the alternative of taking hostages if I don't learn to relax.


  1. This is really an interesting article. Personally, when I'm stressed, I tend to eat more sometimes. From this article, I bet readers will think twice on letting stress take over. We sure would not want excess body fat lingering in our tummy. Let's all destress!

  2. We are genuinely taking a vacation over the Holiday's this year. No meal planning, no driving to 5 different relatives houses. Presents will be shipped, and we'll be on the beach.

    I'm estatic.

  3. I think I shall resolve, for the thousandth time, to get better about taking some daily time for deep breathing/visualizations. I find if I don't do it regularly, I can't make much use of it in stressful situations--I have to train my body to relax, and it can get out of the habit. But I'm so lazy about making it a routine part of my day!

    Thanks for the (very funny) reminder that there all kinds of important health reasons for keeping stress in check!

  4. This article is no joke. I live it. LOL

  5. Nic, sounds like heaven on earth to me.

    Stress is simply a constant companion. I wish I had a solution.

  6. Hi Gigi & welcome!

    Ah, yes, I knew about this belly fat & stress & cortisol stuff.. more for me to stress about! :-)

    Me, how I am going to cope... exercise & lift those weights! I love the weights & doing them always empties my mind of everything but weights!

    This is a tough time of year for stress so I may have to do some deep breathing & imagining I am in Hawaii too!

  7. Ah stress what a pain huh?

    Anyway holiday stress for me has dropped a lot cause I choose how long I spend with those (aka the fam) who stress me out. I used to go to my parents house for the whole week of Christmas and now I just go down for the day. Makes stress way less of an issue.

    For the everyday stress of working and living with my college students I just build in me time everyday. I build it in first thing every morning. Sure getting up 3 hours before work sounds a little crazy especially since I don't have to drive to work but I look at it this way I give myself my time before anyone gets it. I made this change about 3 years ago and I'm much less stressed. What do I do with those three hours you ask? I make a nice cooked b-fast, enjoy my coffee with a little of the Today show, play online, get in an hour workout, take a nice long shower, prep my snacks and dinner, and spend a little time with my partner.

  8. I really try to avoid stress where ever and whenever I can and that includes doing the prep (shopping, etc.) for holidays very early and avoiding any holiday situations that are stress prone.


  9. Stress! That old double edged sword. A little = good, too much = bad...but it's such a fine line.

    The holidays are never much stress for me. I enjoy them way too much. (Okay - one exception: when I decide at the very last minute to make 3 quilts. In like 3 days. That's stress.) Our greatest stress reducing decision has been that whoever is hosting plans the menu and makes the turkey/ham. Everyone else brings the rest of the menu. And there are at least 5 courses and as many bottles of wine. That'll get rid of your stress right there baby. : )

  10. I've always had a thing with butt fat, not belly fat. I am glad to know know it's better for me...kind of...sort of...maybe?
    I try and destress when I can. I've found having my iPod to get lost in music during bits of solitary time on the bus/walking/lab help me stay in the sanity realm. Well so far anyways...
    I had thought it was going to slow down now that summer is over.
    Hahahahahahaaaaaaaa....*wipes away tear*

  11. Last year was the first year in my personal history that I did not gain any weight and I think one reason was my sister got WLS in November. We decided to stop making the holidays about food. And the other thing I was doing was reading tons of fitness blogs.

    Lately though, I've had some stress and it dunlapped over my belt.

  12. For me the holidays are less stressful than the rest of my life. I don't live close enough to any relatives to have to deal with that part of the equation unless someone is traveling and no one wants to so YAY to long distance families. The part of this season that WILL be stressful is money. My husband has been laid off since last January, and still has not found work. Money is tighter than tight and that makes it hard to relax and just BE, family or no family. So I am looking for inexpensive ways to enjoy the season and be less stressed.

  13. I think POD has the right idea about not making the holidays revolve entirely around food. My hubby and I like to take the kids hiking on the holidays, and we're lucky enough to live in a climate that allows for that.
    My in-laws are also pretty mellow about holiday meals. We cook, we eat, we wash dishes, and everyone enjoys. (OK, maybe not the cleaning-up part, but with so many people around, it gets doen quickly, lol!)
    Personally, I try not to worry about putting weight on over the holidays. I eat a little of all the stuff I like, and stay active. If I don't stress over it, I don't gain weight.

  14. Oh - so many great comments today!
    Nic: I'm incredibly jealous but loving your idea.
    Jodi: I'm with you on the deep, deep breathing. I think I inhaled a cat.
    Cert.Fit: A.M. time to yourself is wonderful and sets a good tone for the rest of the day. I love how quiet the house is.
    POD: The holidays should SO be about being together instead of the crazy food/shopping thing.

  15. Ah yes, stress. The UNFRIEND. I am sure that the stress of my news job did not help the issues I had in my first pregnancy, and in that way, stress can be devastating. Bad, stress, BAD! For so many reasons. I try to sweat it all out and I plan to destress myself during the holidays by being done with whatever by December 5th and not a day later. I'm sick of being last-minute nelly!

  16. typed a rant.

    deleted :)

    just know Im here....

  17. Yoga and meditation :) At least, if I ever get the time ;)

  18. i believe it. i just wish there was some magical potion that would get rid of stress (but didn't have other side effects).

  19. guess i have low stress *grips her lil mommy apron belly* LOL

    i'm gonna use that as an excuse now! hahaha

  20. It's not the mocha lattes after all?! Just kidding. Great post. Releasing stress is easiest with exercise, you've heard the rant but just stretching every day makes a difference. I stretch in my car, at my desk and I get down on the yoga mat from 10 - 50 minutes every day. I don't like to suffer! It's a life saver too, as yoga moves the stress hormones out of the body and opens you up to greater possibilities. Congratulations again on the article, Elaine Masters, RYT
    Twitter:@dtygal, http://www.DrivetimeYoga.com

  21. am absolutely a stress eater! I gained more weight in the week after my vacation than I did during the 2 1/2 weeks I was away!

    how do i deal with stress during the holidays? I run away. to Rome during the jewish new year - to madrid during xmas/new year's....haven't quite figured out a good escape for thanksgiving....


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