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“Take that Stress Outside”, KC Bar Bulletin, by Stacey Romberg

By March 22, 2011 No Comments

It’s Wednesday, 11 a.m. My to-do list seems daunting and several deadlines loom menacingly. My work phone or my cell phone rings every 10 minutes. I stare at the countless emails in my inbox, several of them flagged as “high importance.”

What should I do? Time management seminars teach lawyers how to successfully handle these situations by delegating, prioritizing and completing our tasks. I think about these techniques. Then, with conviction, I choose the most productive and efficient solution possible.

I leave. I get into my car, drive to the Amy Yee Tennis Center and spend the next hour smacking tennis balls. I attempt to run down impossible shots. Once in awhile, I rip a ball as hard as I did when I was a ranked junior at 16. Now, at 46, when I do that, my body lets me know the next day that 30 years have passed.

But I’m having fun — breathing, sweating, moving — and focusing on nothing more than whether my next shot should be down the line or cross court. Any thoughts of my inbox, the deadlines and the unanswered voice mail are far behind.

When the hour’s up, I drive back. The email and voice mails haven’t gone away, and in fact have multiplied. The deadlines still loom. So, what did I accomplish? In fact, I may have remodeled my brain to better handle stress.

Last October, Princeton University researchers presented their preliminary results to the Society of Neuroscience in Chicago:

[S]cientists allowed one group of rats to run. Another set of rodents was not allowed to exercise. Then all of the rats swam in cold water, which they don’t like to do. Afterward, the scientists examined the animals’ brains. They found that the stress of the swimming activated neurons in all of the brains. (The researchers could tell which neurons were activated because the cells expressed specific genes in response to the stress.) But the youngest brain cells in the running rats, the cells that the scientists assumed were created by running, were less likely to express the genes. They generally remained quiet. The “cells born from running,” the researchers concluded, appeared to have been “specifically buffered from exposure to a stressful experience.” The rats had created, through running, a brain that seemed biochemically, molecularly, calm.1

Although these findings are new, the Princeton research has support. According to a study conducted at the University of Colorado in Boulder, rats that had run for several weeks showed lower levels of serotonin in their brains and exhibited less anxiety when stressed.2 Also, University of Houston researchers reported during the same October meeting that exercise may enhance the body’s ability to handle oxidative stress.

Oxidative stress is caused by an imbalance between the production of reactive oxygen (highly reactive free radicals) and a biological system’s ability to readily detoxify the body or easily repair the resulting damage. In humans, oxidative stress is involved in many diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease, heart failure, Alzheimer’s disease and chronic fatigue syndrome.3

The University of Houston made some rats exercise, injected both the exercising and non-exercising rats with oxidizing chemicals, and then subjected the rats to unfamiliar terrain to promote stress. The rats that exercised “were relatively nonchalant under stress” despite the injection of the chemicals, while the other rats were “extremely anxious.”4

We’ve always known that exercise is recommended to reduce stress. In the last year, we’ve significantly progressed in figuring out the science behind this recommendation. The bottom line: Exercise may literally remodel your brain, making it more resistant to stress.5

The beneficial effects appear to be maximized by committing to a long-term exercise program. In the University of Colorado study, it took six weeks for the stress-reducing benefits of exercise to take hold for the rats.6 Many issues remain to be determined, including the intensity of the exercise needed to achieve the “brain remodeling” benefits as well as the applicability of these studies to humans.

Although I’m not a rat being thrown into cold water, I’ve certainly felt that way at times in my practice. Like any busy lawyer, I could benefit from a brain that is “biochemically, molecularly, calm” as stated in the Princeton study.

So, even though the final results have yet to come in, I intend to continue handling my workload by taking those needed breaks to exercise — and then trusting that my remodeled brain will be able to perform all work required once I get back to the office.

Stacey L. Romberg, Attorney at Law, when not smacking tennis balls, practices in the areas of business law, estate planning and probate.

1 The New York Times, November 18, 2009, Gretchen Reynolds, “Phys Ed: Why Exercise Makes You Less Anxious.”

2 Id. Serotonin used to be known as a “happy” brain chemical, but recent research has found this finding to be questionable.

3 Wikipedia.

4 Reynolds.

5 WebMD Blog, November 24, 2009, Pamela Peeke, M.D., “Everyday Fitness with Dr. Pam Peeke.”

6 Reynolds.

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Reprinted from May 2009, King County Bar Association Bulletin, by Stacey Romberg

This post is for informational purposes and does not contain or convey legal advice. The information herein should not be used or relied upon in regard to any particular facts or circumstances without first consulting with an attorney.

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