This article originally appeared in Tips on Life & Love from Simon & Schuster.
Our modern work life is stressful, and to make things worse, we tend to prioritize our jobs over self-care. But my career was so intense that I gained a serious amount of weight and endured health problems. Here’s how I put down the cupcakes and laced up my hiking boots in The Episodic Career.
I gained forty pounds in the four years I worked at NPR, which I am still working off. That certainly wasn’t the company’s fault. I haven’t heard of a job yet that doesn’t have potential for stress. In my case, I had to help lead coworkers through editorial and emotional changes, as we lost staff positions and worked for more than a year under rumors that the show might be canceled. In 2009 it ultimately became part of a Great Recession wave of cancellations that took out three NPR shows and dozens of staffers. After the cancellation, I knew I needed to spend some time getting healthier. Yet I didn’t understand until I began researching this book how harmful on-the-job stress is to your physical and mental health. Stress even explained the biological basis of my food cravings.
Once I moved back to New York in 2009, I found a new physician, Dr. Roberta Lee, who’d authored The SuperStress Solution. In it, she wrote of the recent emergence in many developing countries of the same stress- and diet-related illnesses that Westerners have long experienced, such as obesity, diabetes, insomnia, and heart disease.
“Chronic job stress is as bad for you as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day,” Dr. Lee told me. “Your cortisol level rises, and your body goes into fight-or-flight mode.” Cortisol is a steroid hormone that our bodies produce in reaction to stress. It’s a normal part of our physiology, and when we need it as a “spot treatment,” it can be beneficial, giving us energy. But prolonged stress and cortisol production can weaken our immune system, making it harder to recover from illness and injury. Excess, prolonged cortisol also increases our chances of developing osteoporosis, or bone loss, and it can even impair memory.
Sometimes job stress is inevitable, but we can always change how we deal with it. According to Dr. Lee, just taking a five-minute break in the middle of your day — “a walk, or quiet time with no devices” (no smartphone, television, or computer) — can reset your entire system and allow you to be more productive. Stress can cause the body to crave sugars, which exacerbates inflammation and generates layers of belly fat. That’s exactly what happened to me, and because both my mother and grandmother had double knee replacements due to hereditary arthritis (not from their weight), I knew I was headed for joint complications that could greatly diminish my quality of life. This alarming realization pushed me to lose weight and follow Dr. Lee’s advice. I’m certainly no triathlete, but I use my bicycle now for both exercise and transportation, and take time to do high-intensity workouts with a local boot camp. At the height of my job stress, I could have used the calm that follows an intense workout, but I’d convinced myself, quite wrongly, that a cupcake was better for me than a hike. Exercise also produces endorphins, natural pain and stress relievers; and other research shows even a slow, meditative walk in nature without high calorie-burning value is good for our mental health and mood.