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Stress Relief: The Key to a Flat Tummy

For years, fitness experts have said that a flat stomach takes commitment in two basic areas: diet and exercise. Now, though, gurus are saying there's another piece of the washboard abs puzzle. If you really want a sleek, cinched waistline, you might need to consider your stress levels, too.

Woman measures waist Stress also causes flab

Stress and the Creation of the "Spare Tire"

As fitness expert Jillian Michaels explains, when you are stressed out, your body releases multiple hormones, including cortisol, norepinephrine and epinephrine. Norepinephrine stops insulin production so you have more blood glucose available.

Epinephrine relaxes the muscles in your stomach and intestines, decreasing blood flow to these "non-essential" organs so your body can focus its energy on other areas, such as the muscles you need to run away from a threat. Cortisol balances norepinephrine and epinephrine, telling your body to stop releasing them.

When you are under stress for a long time, the amount of cortisol your body makes stays high. The body subsequently thinks that it has to conserve to deal with what it perceives to be tough times, so it holds on to fat more easily.

It moves fat into the abdominal region where more cortisol receptors are located, changing peripheral fat (the fat that accumulates just under the skin) into visceral fat (the fat that surrounds the internal organs of your tummy).

Too much visceral fat has been linked to an increased risk of health problems, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even colorectal cancer. To add insult to injury, belly fat contains enzymes that transform cortisone to even more cortisol, creating a cycle. Another kicker?

When people plateau or see their bellies expanding even when they're eating right and exercising, they often stress out more.

Fighting the Flab

In today's fast-paced, hectic culture, people accept stress almost as a matter of standard. The reality, however, is that you likely have much more control over how much stress you experience than you might realize.

For instance, if your boss is driving you crazy, you don't have to swallow his toxic abuse every day--you can beef up your resume and find a job where you're appreciated, although you might need some careful financial planning before you put in your notice.

Removing the stressor from your life in this way should always be your first course of action when possible, because it is a more permanent solution than merely managing the issue from day to day.

If you truly are in a situation where you cannot get rid of a stressor (for example, a family member is dealing with a serious illness), do what you can to relax and refocus. Common recommendations are to go for a walk, take a bubble bath, do some meditation, go visit a friend, read a good book, pray, or write your feelings in a journal.

There's no right or wrong here, as everyone has their own personal preferences, histories, and physical limitations. Even exercise itself can be a form of stress relief. Many people who face high-stress environments enjoy kickboxing, for instance, as they can channel their pent-up frustrations into aggressive punches, kicks, and complex combinations. Others prefer options such as yoga, finding comfort in the calm and discipline of the poses.

One thing you definitely should not do as you seek both solace and a smokin' body is prowl the grocery store or raid your fridge. People who are under a lot of stress often turn to comfort foods, which almost always are heavy in simple carbohydrates, to feel better.

Scientists have shown that this is essentially a way of self-medicating. High-carbohydrate foods trigger the release of serotonin, a "feel good" hormone that contributes to feelings of calm and happiness. The problem is that these types of foods are often high in calories and woefully low in nutrients.

Experts recommend that, if you're tempted to binge on these kinds of items, you keep healthy alternatives, such as nuts or low-sodium jerky, in your desk or purse.

Getting a flat stomach requires more than just watching your calories and blasting through your workouts. It also requires maintaining a relatively stress-free life. Although you might not be able to remove all stressors, you probably can eliminate some of the ones you face as you seek to get more fit.

For the stressors you have to put up with, manage your worry, anxiety and frustration through healthy, fun and relaxing activities of your choice, such as gardening or listening to music. Don't give in to the temptation to use food as your solace if you can help it--your body will be the better for it.


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