“Where the mind goes, the body follows…” Sometimes we lawyers (who use our minds for a living) tend to forget how true the ancient proverb can be. Think about it: we use our minds all day thinking, acting and reacting about the issues in the cases we are working on. Our bodies follow right along.
Some of us downplay how stressful our jobs are, but the fact is the constant stress we endure day after day affects our bodies in the most egregious way, no matter how well our minds cope with it.
Stress Makes Lawyers Fat!
According to the American Heart Association, in addition to the emotional discomfort we feel when faced with a stressful situation, our bodies react by releasing stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) into the blood. These hormones prepare the body for the “fight or flight response” by making the heart beat faster and constricting blood vessels to get more blood to the core of the body instead of the extremities. Constricted blood vessels and an increased heart rate raise blood pressure, but only temporarily; when the stress reaction goes away, blood pressure returns to its pre-stress level. This is called situational stress, and its effects are generally short-lived and disappear when the stressful event is over.
But what else happens to our bodies when the stress event is over? When the immediate stress is over, the adrenaline dissipates, but the cortisol lingers to help bring the body back into balance. One of the ways the cortisol brings things back to normal is by stimulating our appetites so we can replace the carbohydrate and fat we should have burned while fleeing or fighting.
Pamela Peeke, M.D., is the author of Fight Fat After Forty (2000, Viking Press) and an assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. According to Dr. Peeke, after a stressful situation, your body assumes you have just physically exerted yourself (for example, running from a lion), and now your need to restock your reserves by eating a lot of carbohydrates or fatty food that can easily be stored as fat. In reality, you are probably still sitting in your car or at your desk, still fuming and stressed out about what just took place.
“In today’s modern world, this elegant survival mechanism may be an anachronism that causes the body to refuel when it doesn’t need to,” Dr. Peeke writes. “Sustained stress keeps up cortisol, that cursed hunger promoter, elevated and that keeps appetite up, too.”
Enter the quick donut fix in place of a skipped breakfast, three cups of coffee, a handful of M&Ms from the receptionist’s perpetual “goody bowl,” another donut, a fast-food lunch, and now you have a serious, growing problem – which is probably growing around your midsection as well.
Experts believe that enduring a constant stream of stressful events day after day can lead to weight gain, as your appetite and insulin levels are continuously increased.
“If stress and cortisol levels stay high, so will insulin levels,” says Robert M. Sapolsky, Ph.D., a professor of biological sciences and neuroscience at Stanford University. Continual stress leads to a constant state of excess cortisol production, which stimulates glucose production. Typically, this excess glucose is then converted into fat, ending up as stored fat. “The net effect of this will be increased fat deposition in a certain part of the body,” Dr. Sapolsky says.
To add insult to injury, Shawn Talbott, Ph.D., FACSM, author of The Cortisol Connection (2007, Hunter House) says stress and the resulting chronic overload of cortisol make you feel tired and listless. The excess cortisol produced causes you to seek out high carbohydrate and fatty foods to renew your energy. The excess glucose produced means the food you eat is converted into fat, which then ends up around your midsection.
So What Is a Fat, Tired and Listless Lawyer to Do?
Most experts agree that a low to moderate amount of regular exercise can ease personal tension and stress. However, a study by researchers at the University of Missouri, Columbia shows that a relatively high-intensity exercise is superior in reducing stress and anxiety. Moreover, the researchers found that high-intensity exercise especially benefits women.
“Conventional wisdom says that exercising for 30 minutes at a moderate exercise intensity is more effective in reducing anxiety than either a low or high intensity dose,” says Richard Cox, the study’s leader and a professor of educational and counseling psychology. “This conclusion, however, is deceptively simple because reductions in anxiety are not always observed immediately following a high intensity bout of exercise.”
In the study, female participants, ages 18 to 20 and 35 to 45, completed three experimental sessions. Each session started with a test to determine the anxiety level of the participant. Following the test, the women either did not exercise (control condition) or exercised at a moderate or high-intensity level for 33 minutes.
After the session, Cox measured anxiety levels at five, 30, 60 and 90 minutes post-exercise.
All three groups, including the control group, showed a decline in anxiety over time, but Cox found the high-intensity level experienced the sharpest decline. Cox said the intensity of exercise conditions did not differ in anxiety levels at baseline or immediately after exercise, but a difference favoring the high intensity level emerged at 30, 60 and 90 minutes post-exercise.
Results also showed that when the iron status of the women was taken into consideration, the beneficial effect of high-intensity exercise was greater for the older women.
Engaging in regular exercise is one way lawyers can reduce their daily stress (and growing midsections) and high intensity exercise appears to be more beneficial than low intensity. Running and bicycling are examples of high intensity exercise, but there are many gyms in the county that offer a variety of exercise classes that can fun and challenging. Of course, always consult your physician first before engaging in any new activity if you are not used to regular exercise, and always start out with low intensity exercise until you are ready to “kick it into high gear.”
Jill A. Singer practices workers compensation law and social security disability appeals at the Law Offices of Deirdre Frank in Ventura.