If you believe fitness and health magazines and blogs, you’ll see that nutrition and exercise are the two biggest factors when it comes to losing weight and maintaining. Both of these are important (you have to adjust each based on your goals too), for sure. However, the third factor in boosting fat loss and in keeping your weight stable is stress management.
How Exercise Affects Stress Levels
There’s a lot of support backing up the fact that regular exercise is great for stress relief. I couldn’t survive without my daily exercise. It’s the only time of the day when I can focus solely on what my body is doing (and my music) and completely let go of work, life and love stressors.
Exercise can help release endorphins, too. These are your feel-good neurotransmitters. Working out clears your mind and brings you more in tune with the present moment. It’s hard to move through those heavy back squats if you’re distracted!
When you exercise, your body naturally produces your stress hormone – cortisol – in response to the extra need for cellular energy. Cortisol helps mobilize stored energy and converts it to glucose for your muscles to use up.
However, sometimes this stress response can kick into high gear and actually cause your body to store fat. Too much exercise, too intense of exercise, or working out when you’re tired can all lead to an excess amount of cortisol production.
And high levels of cortisol are linked to problems metabolizing glucose (aka carbs), belly fat, cravings, and fatigue.
The Importance of Recovery Days
You’ve probably heard that it’s a good idea to take a few days off each week from exercise. You can still be active but it’s important for your health to relax more too.
A lot of us can get quite addicted to exercise. We love how we feel from it. It’s a mood booster. And watching our bodies perform and grow in a positive way is exhilarating.
But when we exercise all the time, or push ourselves too hard, we can fall into a fatigued, over-worked state. This is where chronically high levels of cortisol come in.
Recovery days are not only good for our muscles, to give them some time to repair and get stronger, but also good for our bellies!
When you take a day or two to rest and do only light or moderate activities, you allow your stress response to normalize. And this prevents belly fat!
Stress and Belly Fat
As our lives become hectic, sometimes it’s hard to either fit in exercise or, if you’re like me, give up a day. I find that the only time I feel myself when life is stressful is when I’m at the gym. So I rarely like to take a day off.
But, lifestyle stress adds up too.
The more stress you have, the more cortisol your body will produce. Any time you feel anxious, overwhelmed, annoyed or just plain stressed out, your body pumps out cortisol.
Cortisol, along with a few other stress hormones, is produced to help get your body ready for “fight or flight”. In other words, it’s a survival mechanism. Before our modern conveniences, humans responded to stress by either fighting back (think a sabre-toothed tiger) or fleeing (you know, running away from an enemy). You’ve maybe intuitively felt this way when faced with a major threat too!
Today, however, our stressors are quite different. Most of the stress we experience is either in our heads as worry or anxiety over whether we’ll make a deadline. Rarely do we have to option to fight or flee (though, honestly, there are days when punching someone seems like a great idea!). Which means, our bodies pump out cortisol to mobilize stored energy for fight or flee…and that energy doesn’t get used up.
That energy just “sits” there, waiting for something to happen that never does. And, when there is no activity for it to be used up by, stored energy is converted to fat (mainly belly fat).
Add in a LOT of exercise to your already stressful lifestyle and you potentially end up with even more cortisol and belly fat.
Long-Term Rest and Recovery
Managing the stressors in our lives is tough. Few of us actually know what this even means, and most of us ignore our stress and just push through. Unfortunately, high levels of stress are really bad for our overall health, boosting chronic low-grade inflammation, causing hormonal imbalances, and affecting our brains and digestive systems.
Physical stress is the easiest stressor to do something about, the easiest to understand. Which is why one way to manage stress is to exercise moderately while listening to your body.
If you’re dealing with a high-stress lifestyle and you’re exercising hard (like CrossFit or HIIT), and you’re not seeing results, it might be time for you to take a long-term recovery period.
This doesn’t mean stop all activity. It just means that your body may be in such a high-stress state that your cortisol levels are always high too. Active recovery is just as helpful as days spent sleeping and resting.
If your nutrition is on par and you think you’re doing everything right, but not seeing results, then it may be time to try taking a break from your hard-core exercise routine.
Spend just one week relaxing more, doing stretching and yoga, and sleeping. See how this affects your waistline.
Women who do a lot of cardio often are more likely to succumb to the effects of exercise stress; if this is you, switch things up to help burn through that mobilized energy. Start lifting weights and focusing on strength building workouts. This will help balance your hormones faster than cardio and improve your belly fat situation too.