Getting Fat? Don't Stress!!

We all know stress can be a major hindrance to fat loss. But why? And what can be done about it?

So how do we define stress? Well Torres & Nowson (2007) define it as:

 “generalised, non-specific response of the body to any factor that overwhelms, or threatens to overwhelm, the body’s compensatory abilities to maintain homeostasis”.

Stress can be physical (such as trauma, intense heat or cold), chemical (reduced oxygen supply), physiological (such as training), psychological/emotional, or social (personal conflict, change in circumstance etc). Stressors can be both short-term (acute) and long-term (chronic) in nature. Both will affect eating behaviour and appetite.

It is likely that chronic stress will have a greater impact on our waistlines than an acute stressor. Cortisol is the hormone that is elevated in response to chronic stress. It has been shown that cortisol will increase visceral fat storage (the fat around your organs). Increased cortisol will also result in decreased testosterone. This has the knock on effect of decreasing nutrient partitioning (resulting in a greater likelihood of fat storage over muscle gain). Chronic stress will also increase our appetite, making us reach for so-called ‘comfort foods’. These tend to be very calorie dense (lots of calories per bite), and usually high in fat and sugar.

So cortisol is bad then? Well, like everything relating to the human body, it is not that simple. Cortisol also serves many useful purposes, such as aiding in the breakdown of fat and suppressing your appetite. However, the devil is in the dose. There is no such things as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ hormone. Cortisol isn’t inherently bad. Chronically elevated cortisol levels certainly are a bad thing for long term health.

So how can we manage our stress levels? Here are some simple tips: -

  1. Mindfulness Training- ‘Mindfulness’ has become one of the buzz-words of recent times. However, there is no denying that our lives are busier and full of more distractions than ever before. Sometimes it is difficult to cut through all the noise and find some peace. Meditation and other mindfulness techniques can help you achieve this. Technology in this case can assist in helping us stay mindful. Here is a list of some of the best meditation apps of 2016.
  2. Walk outside in nature - Exposure to nature has plenty of scientific backing. Being in nature, or even just viewing scenes of nature, reduces anger, fear, anxiety and stress whilst concurrently increasing pleasant feelings.
  3. Breathe - Deep breathing is one of the best ways to lower stress in the body. When you breathe deeply it sends a message to the brain to calm down and relax. The way you breathe has repercussions for your whole body. Breathing exercises are also extremely easy to do and can be performed almost anywhere without the need for any equipment. See the following article for some easy to do breathing exercises.
  4. Practice Active Coping - ‘Active Coping’ means dealing with a problem head-on (problem-focused) or managing the resultant emotions (emotion-focused). Problem-focused coping tends to work much better than emotion focused coping. You need to address the root cause of your problem. Dealing with a problem immediately also takes advantage of the acute stress.

We cannot eliminate stress from our lives. We can, however, improve our ability to manage our stress levels. Being able to effectively manage stress is one of the greatest tools we can possess in today’s age. Not only that, but the effectiveness of any training or nutritional protocol you are following will be predicated on your ability to effectively cope when life gets difficult, because invariably it will! Often the point at which external stressors build up is the time people fail and give up on their training or nutrition plan. After a couple of weeks you find yourself back at square one. This is why any diet or training regimen you undertake needs to be SUSTAINABLE for the long-term. Try to always think with the longer-term in mind, not merely the next 4-6 weeks. Like the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day.