Stress is everywhere - at work, at home, at school, driving in your car. The speed with which we live our daily lives and the pressure to constantly do more and be more is taking a toll on our bodies. Just ask Jan Maxwell.
The 32-year old single mother of two is up before dawn to get her little ones dressed, fed, and off to school before heading to work herself. After a long day at the office, she’s back at home making dinner, helping her kids with homework, and putting them to bed while answering work emails in between, and then getting back on her laptop to get more work done once the kids are asleep. She collapses into bed after midnight for a few hours of sleep before doing it all over again.
To make herself feel better, Jan treats herself to a bowl of ice cream almost every night, and sometimes snacks on cookies during the day. “I know it’s not the right choice, but I feel like I deserve it,” Jan admits. But the treats are catching up with her. Jan gained 10 pounds in the last year and is not happy about it.
“It feels like a vicious cycle,” she says. “When I’m stressed out I want to eat more sweets. Then I gain more weight and feel even more stressed.”
Stress and hormones
Like many of us, Jan’s body is likely dealing with the stress by releasing the hormone cortisol. When we feel stressed, our bodies trigger a fight or flight response, which sends more hormones, including cortisol, into the body. More cortisol actually stimulates cravings for foods with more sugars and fats in them, which, in turn, can lead to weight gain.
“Most people eat more when they’re stressed, especially when they don’t have healthy coping mechanisms,” says Dr. Sajani Shah, Chief of the Division of Minimally-Invasive Surgery/Bariatric Surgery at Tufts Medical Center.
“Everyone reacts differently to stress,” notes Dr. Shah. “Some people exercise, meditate, or call a friend for help. Others sit in front of the TV with a pint of ice cream. Knowing yourself and what kind of person you are can help you recognize where the stress is coming from and how you can best deal with it.”
How to help lose added stress weight
Gaining weight is easy. Just 500 extra calories per week can lead to a gain of 10 pounds per year. Losing the weight is the challenge. Dr. Shah says that while exercise is the healthiest way of coping with stress, it’s important to rethink how we exercise.
“In our mind, we think exercise needs to equate to an hour at the gym, but there’s a lot of data that you can do 10 minutes of exercise - jumping jacks, a brisk walk, or running up stairs - a few times a day and it will be just as beneficial as doing all your exercise at once,” she notes.
Parking your car at the end of the lot and walking is an easy way to add in a few minutes of exercise. Or give up the elevator and take the stairs whenever possible. Instead of meeting a friend out for lunch, meet up for a walk and talk.
“Support systems are very important,” says Dr. Shah. People who have a good support system, no matter what they’re going through, fare better. They handle the stress more effectively and don’t gain or lose weight in stressful times.”
Making better food choices during stressful times can also help. Instead of nibbling on French fries, choose foods high in healthy fats like mashed avocado spread on a piece of whole grain toast.
But the best tip for keeping stress weight off may be to prevent the stress to begin with.
“Work and family demand a lot of us and sometimes you just need to say, ‘No, I can’t do that,’” suggests Dr. Shah. “There will always be more work and family obligations, but you have to take care of yourself. Self-care is a crucial part of coping with stress in a healthy way.”
Jan Maxwell took this advice to heart. She started planning her meals at the beginning of the week, making healthy snacks like hardboiled eggs, and fresh vegetable sticks with yogurt dip that she can eat on the go.
“Instead of gobbling up cookies and sitting at my desk all day, I’m munching on vegetables and making work calls while going for a walk each afternoon,” remarks Jan. “Just taking those little steps to handle some of the stress in my life is making me feel so much better.”