The role of stress in fat loss – and what to do about it
You’re under pressure. You’re anxious and ‘on the go’ all the time. You’re eating sensibly and exercising a fair amount – but you can’t seem to shift that stubborn belly fat. What’s going on?
The hustle and bustle of daily life naturally creates a certain amount of pressure that actually helps us function. A demanding work environment, family issues, illness, financial worries and relationship problems are part of life, but it’s the impact that they have that matters.
Constant, chronic low- or high-grade type of stress can wreak havoc on your emotional as well as physical health. Aside from causing anxiety, depression and sleep deprivation, stress can lead to hypertension, weight problems and an increased vulnerability to colds, infections and more serious illnesses.
The stress hormone
When you’re stressed out, your body releases a hormone called cortisol, which can actually make it harder for you to lose fat. Cortisol is like your body’s “fight or flight” response – it helps you deal with stress in the short-term, but if it stays elevated for too long it can cause a whole bunch of problems, including weight gain.
With cortisol pumping through your veins in response to stress, your body ‘holds onto’ fat and tries to stop it from being released from fat stores. Plus, you may feel hungrier and end up eating more. As a result, you can gain weight. One of the ways cortisol affects fat loss is by making it harder for your body to break down fat and use it for energy. Instead, your body will start to break down muscle tissue to use for fuel, which can slow down your metabolism and make it even harder to lose fat.
Secondary impacts of stress
As well as this primary impact on fat loss there are other negative impacts on the body if cortisol levels are elevated for long periods of time.
- Reduced muscle mass and strength
- Increased fat storage, particularly around the abdomen
- Weakened immune system
- Impaired cognitive function and memory
- Sleep disturbances
An important aspect of weight loss is how your brain actually works. Stress diminishes the efficacy of the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is the very part of the brain that we need to be functioning well in order to stick to a weight loss programme. The PFC is responsible for planning (ie. prepping healthy meals in advance), making good choices and exerting willpower (ie. saying ‘no’ to a high sugar food) and our emotional reactions (which, if intense, can lead to emotional eating). Poor PFC function has been shown to lead to more impulsive behaviour (ie. eating unhealthy foods and then wondering why we did straight afterwards).
How to reduce stress
- Have a regular exercise routine
Exercise is number one on the stress management list. When you exercise, your body releases endorphins – those feel-good chemicals that boost your mood and reduce stress. At the same time, exercise also helps to regulate cortisol levels, which can help to prevent the negative effects of chronic stress on your body. While intense exercise can temporarily increase cortisol levels in the short term, regular exercise has been shown to lower cortisol levels over time. In fact, research suggests that people who exercise regularly may have lower cortisol levels compared to those who are sedentary. We recommend weight training twice or three times a week, getting in your ten thousand steps every day, and adding in some cardiovascular exercise like biking to work. The most effective way to maintain the optimal level of exercise in your life is to bake it into your routine.
- Mindfulness and meditation
Practices like mindfulness and meditation can help to reduce stress and promote relaxation. Try setting aside a few minutes each day to sit quietly, focus on your breath, and let go of racing thoughts.
- Deep breathing
If meditation is too ‘happy clappy’ for you, simply taking slow, deep breaths can help to calm your nervous system and reduce stress levels. Try taking a few deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth whenever you feel stressed or overwhelmed.
Adequate sleep is crucial for managing stress levels. Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep each night, and try to stick to a consistent sleep schedule.
- Human connection
Contact with other people can be a powerful tool for reducing stress – we’re sociable creatures biologically, and most of us need regular human contact to feel fulfilled. If most of your social interactions involve booze or overeating, try and steer them towards healthier patterns – like bringing a friend along to the gym for a fun group exercise session.
- Relaxation techniques
Activities like yoga, tai chi, or massage can help to reduce stress and promote relaxation. These are much more effective if done regularly, not sporadically (and should be a complement to more vigorous activities – not a replacement).
So if your weight loss is slower than you’d like, and you’re not sure why – looking at your stress levels can be an important part of the picture. It might be time to schedule in a bit more exercise, some extra R&R, and a couple more hours’ sleep every night.
- How Does Stress Interfere with Fat Loss?
- Is Stress Making You Fat?
- Fat Loss – The Most Important Factor
- Meal Prep for Fat Loss
- 4 Ways you Should Be Measuring Fat Loss Results