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Why You Stress and How to Stop

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Sleep and Sweat

All the stressors in your life aren't likely to just disappear, but there is a way to stop and even reverse the damage they do. Start by getting enough sleep. Lack of shut-eye boosts cortisol levels and can lead to metabolic imbalances that increase your risk of heart disease. Eat plenty of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables and cut back on fat. And find time for friends and loved ones. Strong social support -- surrounding yourself with people whom you can confide in -- makes coping with stress a lot easier.

Finally, and most important, is exercise. It can help stabilize our bodies' stress-related hormonal imbalance, researchers say. "Fitness increases anabolic hormones, such as growth hormone, and may reduce the effects of cortisol," explains Epel. "It's one of the most potent anti-aging behaviors we know of."

Exercise is especially beneficial for the brain. In research on mice, "We found that physical movement could double, triple, and sometimes quintuple the number of cells in the hippocampus," says Fred H. Gage, PhD, a professor in the laboratory of genetics at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. "It was pretty surprising." How does it cause such incredible changes? One possibility is that "during exercise, you generate new blood vessels, which allows proteins to get into the brain," says Gage.

Another theory is that exercise increases the levels of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) -- aka brain fertilizer -- "which helps the regeneration of damaged nerve cells in the brain," says Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, PhD, a professor of neurosurgery at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine.

Evidence suggests that people can benefit from working out as much as animals do. In a study of 59 sedentary men and women, one group improved their aerobic fitness by walking, while the other stretched and toned. "We found increases in brain volume and gray matter in those who walked, but not in those who stretched," says lead researcher Arthur F. Kramer, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "People who did the aerobic workout also showed improved cognitive function, especially in the areas of memory, decision making, and switching from one task to another."

But reaping brain benefits doesn't require training for a marathon. Gage saw improvement in mice that spent two hours a day on the running wheel; for us, he explains, that translates into walking. Kramer advocates "brisk walking three times a week, for up to an hour each time." Gomez-Pinilla suggests an activity like swimming or running, 30 minutes a day, five days a week. Whatever it is you choose to do, the point is: Get moving.

Thanks to a fitness routine that includes weights and cardio four times a week, Rachel Capaldi has lost 30 pounds and feels reenergized. "I'm relaxed and alert," she says. "I think faster, and I retain information a lot better. My GPA has gone from a 3.2 to a 3.8."

"Exercise enables us to think more clearly, make decisions more quickly and accurately, and retain memory better than we otherwise would," says Kramer. "It's never too late to start."

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