As a personal trainer, I naturally have a lot of conversations with people about weight loss.
Many of my clients hired me to help them shed some pounds. Friends and family will often ask me for my input on a certain weight-related struggle. And when strangers find out I’m a personal trainer, they’re always eager to tell me their weight loss woes and triumphs (like the guy in my building who enthusiastically told me about his diet of nothing but apples for 30 days).
The most common frustration I hear is “I’m doing everything right – I’m exercising, I’m eating healthy foods, and I still can’t get rid of these pounds!“.
Is this something that you struggle with? If so, stick around. You’re gonna want to read today’s post, as well as the follow-up posts that will be published the next two Wednesdays.
I’ll be going over three VERY important and often forgotten elements of weight loss. This ain’t no “lose weight quick” scheme, but if you’ve been dieting and exercising with no results, this will probably be a game-changer for you.
Doing Everything “Right”
This is a loaded statement because “right” is different for everyone. Someone who’s vegan might assume that “right” is just avoiding any foods that contain animal products (but spoiler alert: Oreos are vegan and they aren’t exactly nutritious).
Someone who’s following the keto diet might think that as long they avoid carbs they can eat an entire pack of bacon and add a half cup of heavy cream to their coffee every day.
Neither of these situations are “bad”. There are lots of healthy vegans out there, and there are lots of healthy advocates of ketosis. It’s important to remember that different things work for different people under different circumstances.
So when someone tells me they’re doing something “right”, I first want to find out what that means to them. I ask for an example of a week’s worth of food. How much alcohol are they drinking? What do they have for snacks? Do they skip meals? If they add up all the meals they eat in a week, what percentage of them would they consider to be right/good/healthy/on-plan?
Oftentimes, less-than-stellar eating habits become apparent. Late night snacking. Skipping breakfast and diving into the most convenient thing possible at lunch out of sheer starvation. Occasionally (/daily) indulging in the cookies and donuts at the office.
But every so often, their eating habits ROCK. And they’re moving their bodies on a daily basis.
So what gives?
The Link Between Stress and Weight
Many times, stress is the culprit. Which doesn’t come as much of a surprise, given the world we live in today.
Getting up at 5am for an hour-long HIIT workout (because HIIT is the best way to burn fat and build muscle, right?). Racing home to wake up the kids, get breakfast on the table, get the kids organized for school and out the door.
Rush off to work, damn there’s already a pile of papers on the desk, go to a meeting with your boss, have that meeting with your team member who’s under-performing, go for lunch with a client, get back to the office and put out whatever fires started while you were away (that pile of papers from 9am is still sitting there), leave early so you can pick up the kids (without dealing with that pile of papers).
Drive Kid 1 to Activity 1, drive Kid 2 to Activity 2, try to stop Kid 3 from crying because she doesn’t want to sit in the car all afternoon, pick up Kid 1 and Kid 2, take all kids home, get dinner on the table, help them with school work, put them to bed, crash on the couch before watching mindless TV for an hour before bed. Likely fall asleep on the couch and get woken up by your partner to go to bed at 11:30pm so you can do it all over again the next day.
Fun times, right?
Between work commitments, social obligations, family responsibilities, and our constantly-connected environment, we have a lot on our minds at all times.
But here’s what your body does when you’re in a constant state of stress:
- Muscles become chronically tense, which can lead to headaches and migraines, aches and pains, and injury if you’re active
- Heart rate becomes chronically elevated, which increases your risk of heart attack
- Blood pressure becomes chronically elevated, which can lead to a stroke
- Blood sugar levels are increased (to help you run from the “danger” you’re currently in), which increases your risk of diabetes
- Blood is diverted away from the stomach which can lead to digestive issues and exacerbate ulcers and IBS symptoms
- Menstrual cycles can become irregular or non-existent, with incredibly uncomfortable symptoms of PMS
- A hormonal response to increase production of adrenaline and cortisol is triggered*
Basically, all of these things are a direct result of your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) constantly telling your body to prepare to fight or run. Hence the phrase “fight or flight response”. It’s a primative system that helped us when we needed to run away from tigers and neighbouring tribes. But in today’s world, where we’re getting agitated by one thing after another, it can lead to some pretty nasty health issues.
All of these things can indirectly lead to weight gain or an inability to lose weight. Aches and pains caused by chronic muscle tension can put a damper on your fitness habits. Diabetes can make weight management incredibly challenging. Digestive disorders can make it tough to stick to your normal healthy eating routine.
But the big one I want to focus on is the increased production of cortisol.
Cortisol and Weight Management
I’ve written about cortisol before (visit this if you want to read the full post). And cortisol isn’t inherently bad. In fact, it does a lot of good things for us!
It regulates your blood sugar and metabolism, keeps your immune system in proper working order, and preps your body for action in times of need, among other things.
But cortisol becomes a problem when there’s a steady stream of it flowing through your body, because not only does it prepare your body to throw your fists in a fight, it also prepares your body for danger by storing body fat. Specifically around the mid-section. Which is exactly where most women are trying to lose it.
For those who are doing everything “right” and still can’t seem to lose the weight, I often recommend stress management. And fortunately, it doesn’t have to take up as much time as going to the gym or prepping a week’s worth of meals. It just takes conscious effort.
Managing Stress to Lose Weight
There are SO many things you can do to manage your stress levels, that I feel this topic could deserve a post on its own (which it likely will one day).
But let’s look at a few different types of stress, and how you can manage them.
This is the type of stress that comes from having your work email linked to your personal phone and being reachable by co-workers 24 hours a day.
It’s the type of stress that comes from an incredibly demanding job that requires you to be in a million places at once.
It’s the type of stress that comes from having a busy brain that’s always on the go-go-go.
So what can you do to manage it?
- Practice mindfulness. Stop scrolling through your phone while you’re waiting in the coffee line-up. Stop multi-tasking. Be present and in the moment.
- Practice meditation. If the idea of shutting off your brain seems totally impossible, don’t worry. I get you, girlfriend. I use an app called Headspace and it’s helped a ton.
- Breathe. Take some loooong, deep breaths. Get into your belly when you do it. Deep breathing is amazing at turning on the parasympathetic nervous system (the opposite of our stress-response friend, the SNS). I encourage you to do this at regular intervals throughout the day, even when you don’t feel inherently stressed.
This is the type of stress that stems from losing a loved one, or helping a friend through a challenging time. While everyone is susceptible to emotional stress, individuals who are highly empathetic are likely to experience it more frequently.
What can you do to manage it?
- Engage in activities that restore you. Read a book. Spend time outside. Do some light exercise. Do something that’s just for YOU.
- Talk to somebody. Seek the help of a counsellor, therapist, or even a trusted friend. Don’t hold everything inside.
- Journal. If you’re anything like me, sometimes you just need to write your emotions down on paper to get clear on what’s going on and how you can work through it.
Nutritional stress stems from not fuelling your body with the nutrients it deserves. It comes from eating a highly processed, highly inflammatory diet.
A few tips for managing it:
- Aim to incorporate more whole foods into your diet; foods that are as close to their natural state as possible.
- Stay away from foods that cause a negative reaction in your body (ie. gas and bloating from dairy, breakouts and acne from sugar, etc).
- Ensure proper fuelling for all of your athletic endeavours. Which brings me to….
This form of stress comes from too much exercise and not enough recovery. Yes, there is such a thing! Our bodies can put up with quite the workload, but if we’re mentally exhausted, not fuelling properly, and skimping out on recovery, you can best be sure all those negative symptoms of stress I mentioned above will come into play.
So how can you manage physical stress?
- Ensure you’re getting adequate sleep. When you’re training hard, you don’t grow and get stronger during the workout itself. Recovery happens when you sleep.
- Give your body a rest. Don’t push so hard every day. Schedule in rest days, or add in restorative activities like yoga or pilates.
- Take a break. When you’re training for event after event, it’s important to work de-load weeks or recovery weeks into your training plan.
I’ve thrown a lot of information at you today, but that’s because stress can have such a negative impact on our overall health, not just on our weight loss efforts. But on the flipside, the choice to make simple daily actions, like some of the ones I listed above, can have a hugely profound impact on managing your stress, improving your quality of life, and dropping those last few pounds 😉Struggling to lose weight? Maybe you're missing this key element. #weightloss #healthtips Click To Tweet
So before you go trying out all these new tactics, I’d like to know: how do you manage stress in your own life?