At LSF, we regularly measure our members’ stress levels as part of their weekly accountability check-ins.
In their check-in form, we ask them to rate how much stress they had in the past week and how well they are managing it on a scale of 1 (high stress) to 10 (low stress). More often than not, members report stress levels being somewhere in the middle, although many people do have major spikes in stress throughout the year – as is expected for people with families, careers and responsibilities.
Some of the most common stressors in their lives being a busy work schedule, high job demands, travel, relationships (family, friends, co-workers), and time management.
Many of these stressors are an inevitable part of our lives and their presence in the right dose can be a positive factor in our mental and physical growth.
But what are the effects of chronic stress on a person’s health? How does chronic stress affect your ability to reach your fitness goals?
I recently described to a member that stress is that often present and intangible force in our lives that can have a significant impact on weight loss if not managed properly.
Here is a brief explanation of the impact of chronic stress on your health and ability to manage weight.
1) Chronic cortisol release
Under normal circumstances, cortisol (aka. the stress hormone) is highest at 5am and lowest right before bedtime.
Stress changes this rhythm and can cause cortisol to peak and to dip at various times of the day, leading to an energy rollercoaster.
You may feel that you’re exhausted throughout the day and/or have trouble falling asleep at night. You may also find yourself craving simple carbs and caffeine to regain your energy.
2) Higher blood sugar levels
Prolonged elevated levels of cortisol in the blood will raise blood sugar levels.
Changes in blood sugar can affect appetite, cravings, energy, and ultimately a person’s willpower to make healthy decisions throughout the day.
Do you ever come home after a long day at work and find yourself unable to resist the junk food in your kitchen cabinet?
Your stress could be the reason why!
3) Cortisol, insulin, and fat storage
Normally, cortisol indirectly helps to burn fat while insulin promotes fat storage.
Insulin levels will rise in response to elevated blood sugar levels, which we know are affected by stress and cortisol.
Thus, we have a feed-forward cycle between cortisol, blood sugar, and insulin – when cortisol and insulin are elevated for extended periods of time, they can result in fat storage, especially at the waist.
This can leave you feeling in despair as you work harder and harder to reduce your waistline in the gym yet these two hormones make burning fat more difficult to do.
4) Stress and exercise
Our bodies experience stress many different ways: mental, emotional, and physical. Although stressors may come in different forms, their impact in our bodies is similar and often has a compound effect when we experience various forms of stress at once.
But doesn’t exercise help to relieve stress?
Exercise is a form of acute physical stress which, in moderate doses and under normal circumstances, can have a positive impact on our mental, emotional, and physical states.
But sometimes there is such thing as too much exercise, especially when someone is already feeling fatigued, having trouble sleeping, and/or has a lack of appetite.
The answer with exercise, as always, is it depends. It depends on the situation, the amount of exercise, and most importantly, how it leaves you feeling afterwards.
Hopefully, reading about the impact of stress on overall health and weight loss hasn’t made you more stressed.. If it has, fear not!
Here are a few action steps you can start today to help manage stress in your everyday life:
Meditation in its various forms has a number of well-researched benefits, among them include reduced anxiety and depression, improved cognition, improved sleep quality and reduced symptoms of stress.
TRY THIS: Take 10 minutes any time of day, find somewhere quiet to sit, and relax.
Both offer free 7-day series that teach you the basics of mindfulness meditation.
2) Reduce the caffeine
I know, I am sorry – I love my coffee too – but caffeine can cause a number of unwanted side effects and lead to increased cortisol levels. Side effects include insomnia, nervousness, elevated heart rate, and nausea.
TRY THIS: Gradually reduce the amount of caffeinated beverages you drink over time. If you drink several cups of coffee per day, try cutting back by one cup of coffee per week.
Alternatively, try dropping down by one drink size every couple of weeks. If you enjoy your large regulars, start ordering mediums instead – even if you have the same number of cups per week, you will have reduced the amount of caffeine consumed!
3) Hide the junk
“Out of sight, out of mind” comes into play here. Removing tempting foods from easy to reach places in the kitchen will set you up for success in moments when willpower is low and cravings are high.
This is one of the best proactive steps you could take to manage the inevitable hunger that appears in highly stressful times.
TRY THIS: Go through your fridge, kitchen counters and cabinets, and take inventory of all the junk food you have sitting around.
Try to find a few places in the house that are difficult to reach and not easily visible. Some examples include storing junk food in high cabinets that require a stepping stool to reach, keeping it in a container in the garage (as long as this isn’t your entry to the house), or throwing the junk out altogether
In his book, Play It Away, author Charlie Hoehn lists the most effective techniques to eliminate anxiety and manage workaholism.
One of those techniques is to participate in outdoor sports or “physical movement that gets your heart racing, causes you to sweat, and is legitimately FUN for you and your friends.” Source: http://tim.blog/2014/02/19/anxiety-attacks-2/
Outdoor sports are essentially exercise without feeling like “work”. You play outdoor sports to have fun, burning calories comes second. It can be high intensity, but it doesn’t have to be. You can choose the activity that matches your energy level on any given day.
TRY THIS: Schedule time to go outdoors and play an activity with a friend or group of friends next week. The options are endless – go for hike, throw the frisbee at a park, or visit the driving range for some practice swings.
Stress is never going to go away, and the goal isn’t to completely remove it.
After all, many of the things that cause us stress are also some of the most important things in our lives – family, work, health, etc.
The goal is to manage it, and these 4 tips are a great to start to making sure stress is under control and isn’t inhibiting your fitness results.