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, 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.

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