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Most mornings the alarm clock has barely gone off and Heather Allen, a 33-year-old vice president of a communications firm in Dallas, is already obsessing over the day's to-do list. Combining the demands of an all-consuming job with the challenges of being newly married and the things that come with that — a house, juggling budgets, and more — can seem overwhelming. "When I wake up, my brain is on fire, " Heather says. "I'm thinking of a million conversations I need to have at work or in my personal life, maybe even one that I need to have again." Rather than take that pressure-cooker feeling to work, she lets it fuel her morning workout. "Exercise helps me regain my equilibrium, " she says. "After a cardio class or hard workout, I don't even remember what I was stressing about."

A lot of us could use that relief. According to the American Psychological Association, a whopping 75 percent of people in the United States feel stressed out. Almost half of us eat unhealthy because of it; 47 percent of us can't sleep because of it; it makes one in three of us depressed; and for 42 percent of us, it has gotten worse in the last year. There is so much making us anxious these days — from big-picture problems like uncontrollable oil spills and a still-soft economy to garden-variety job, relationship, money, you-name-it woes — that it's easy to think of chronic stress as the new normal.

Unfortunately stress doesn't just mess with your head; it actually messes with your waistline. When you're faced with a nerve-racking situation, your body increases production of the hormone cortisol, part of what experts call the fight-or-flight response. If the stress-inducing situation disappears, your body returns to normal. If it remains? Well, that's the problem. The kind of stress most of us face is the ongoing sort — credit card bills, relationship tension, office layoffs — which keeps cortisol levels elevated for days. And that increased cortisol, in turn, appears to encourage the body to store additional abdominal fat.

An expanding belly is just one side effect of a stressed-out life. "Stress is associated with just about every chronic disease we know, " says Jill Goldstein, PhD, director of research at the Connors Center for Women's Health and Gender Biology at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. Heart disease, diabetes, depression, and some cancers are the most notable examples. Recent research from the Yale School of Medicine indicates that stress may also be responsible for encouraging addictive behaviors and other unhealthy habits by disrupting the part of your brain responsible for self-control and decision making.

Conventional wisdom suggests that you are just a deep breath, a relaxing bath, or a soothing movie away from discovering the secret to a stress-free life. But because the stress response is largely physical (your brain stimulates the release of certain powerful hormones that subsequently increase your blood pressure and heart rate), it's not always possible to think yourself calm, says Monika Fleshner, PhD, a professor in the department of integrative physiology at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Rather, the latest research reveals that revving up your body with exercise may be the most effective antidote. In lab studies, when scientists at Princeton put animals on a six-week aerobic conditioning program, then compared their brain cells with those of a group that remained sedentary, they found that the "brains on exercise" morphed over time into a biochemically calm state that remained steady even when the subjects were under stress. The nonexercising group's brain cells continued to react strongly to anxiety-inducing situations. This breakthrough discovery has scientists now saying that cardio workouts may actually remodel the brain to make it more resistant to stress hormones.

The Power of Exercise

The power of exercise to protect against stress is encouraging news for women, who are more likely than men to experience certain harmful health side effects from feeling chronically maxed out, including a higher risk of depression and autoimmune diseases. Moreover, scientists at the Connors Center have discovered that anxiety-inducing situations can actually lead to different hormonal changes in women's brains than in men's.


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