All you have to do is watch the news, and stress level begins to rise. Then there are the usual stressors of work and family, plus the bigger stressors that pop up and you have a mind and body that are working overtime. These mental stressors are part of life, but they can also lead to weight struggles.
Within seconds of a stress response, chemicals (catecholamines) change every system in your body; Your heart rate increases, blood vessels constrict in your digestive system and your skin, your liver pumps glucose into your blood, your brain narrows its attention to deal with the ‘problem’.
The catecholamines also signal your body to release cortisol. This chemical suppresses appetite immediately but after some time it then stimulates appetite and the preference for food that is rich in fat and sugar (ie: comfort food). Cortisol is also known to cause fat to be deposited around the abdomen. Cortisol also increases your body’s insulin resistance, making it more likely those sugars will stay in your blood system. This chemical also also changes cells in organs in a way that can lead to asthma and eczema as well as pain, gastrointestinal symptoms and panic attacks.
When the stress response is prolonged, it can lead to conditions like: anxiety, depression, type 2 diabetes, fibromyalgia, loss of muscle mass, osteoporosis, high cholesterol, hypertension, and heart disease.
When you are carrying extra body weight there are additional factors that can lead to chronic stress too. Experiencing weight discrimination, having more health concerns and symptoms such as pain and sleep apnea all keep cortisol levels high.
Add to that other factors such as smoking, excessive alcohol use, and some medications like antidepressants and steroids also increase cortisol levels.
This can create a spiral where higher cortisol increases weight and weight gain increases cortisol. When we think of weight loss as simply moving more and eating less, we miss this major hidden factor that is contributing to weight – stress. Then, when going on a diet and exercising are stressful, it can speed up this cycle rather than reversing it.
While all of this may seem overwhelming, the way out is closer than we think. It is found in understanding why your body does all of those changes in response to stress.
When you are in a stress response your body is preparing to protect you by preparing you to move; to run away from or fight a stressor. We all have heard the stress response called the ‘fight or flight’, and that the problem is that our modern day stressors are not solved by fighting or fleeing the ‘danger’. The bigger problem is that we have made exercise stressful, reducing the chances it will be able to take you from the stress response back to the state your body can heal and repair.
The answer is found not in more exercise, but instead carefully designing movement time so it is stress reducing by:
- Focusing on what you are doing, not multitasking to just get it done
- Moving the way your body was designed (hint: it was not designed to do sit ups)
- Doing just the right amount for your body now, not exercising to a point of pain or exhaustion
The fact is, only you know if exercise is stress producing or stress reducing. It starts with knowing how your body is designed to move, staying away from marketing based exercise programs. Then listening to your body so you know how it moves well now, at your current shape and size.
It’s not only possible for exercise to reduce stress, it is essential if exercise is going to lead to weight loss and improved health and well-being.
The bottom line is that exercise is the antidote to stress. It is what your body needs when you are stressed in this modern society. Take time to move in ways that help your body lower your cortisol levels now, and it will thank you by getting back to its job to keep you healthy and well.
Keep Moving, Be Well,
Stress and Obesity: Are There More Susceptible Individuals? Eline S. van der Valk et al. Current Obesity Reports(2018)