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Is Stress Derailing your Fitness Journey? Part 1

By Coach Julie

Stress, we all have it. There are many different times: good stress, bad stress, acute stress, chronic stress, etc. Stress can be a platform for growth, just like anything else in life. However, if it is not regulated, and you don’t recognize that it is a problem, it can get out of control. Out of control stress not only affects us mentally, but physically as well. In part 1 of this blog post we are going to discuss the many ways that stress can impact you physically, impact your workouts, and your mental health. In Part 2, we will discuss ways to reduce this type of stress so that you can lead a healthier, happier life…and see greater benefits from your workouts!

“Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster” – Sun Tzu

The first step in overcoming any obstacle (stress) is to look at it and learn how it can hurt you if you let it. Let’s take a look at stress and see why it is so concerning in the first place…let’s get to know it better so we can put a stop to the damage.

1. Stress Affects your Workouts.

Wait, what?! I thought exercise was great for stress relief! Well, it is…BUT new research suggests that if your brain is tired, the rest of your body may be tired as well, because the two go hand in hand. Why is it that mental and physical fatigue are so closely related? Part of the reason is that physical and mental fatigue affect the same region of your brain – the anterior cingulate cortex. If that part of your brain is broadcasting “my brain is fried” signals at the end of the day, then it’s likely your muscles will be tired even before you head for the gym. So what does this mean for our workouts?
a. Stress impacts working memory which means that even the simplest tasks become more difficult…the box jump, for example – ever have a stressful day and then you couldn’t get on top of the box?
b. Stress impairs motor coordination. Stress interferes with information processing in your cerebellum, the area of your brain responsible for motor control and coordination…again, the box jump example.
c. Stress slows exercise recovery. Exercise itself is a form of stress, which triggers changes that make your body stronger. But the system breaks down if you are chronically stressed, as CHRONIC stress impairs your body’s ability to respond and adapt to ACUTE stress (exercise).
d. Stress raises your risk for Injury. Again, the box jump example – ouch! Research has shown that a high degree of major life stresses or a high amount of daily hassles (getting a flat tire, losing your cell phone, etc.) can increase your risk for exercise injury. This is thought to result from attentional deficits and increased muscle tension.
e. Stress Kills Motivation: Yale researchers looked at all of the studies they could find on stress and exercise habits, and 3/4 showed that people under pressure tend to slack off on physical activity and spend more time sedentary. This study showed 21 percent of participants were less likely to work out regularly during times of stress and 32 percent less likely to stick to their fitness schedule over the following four years. This is particularly unfortunate, because exercise is such an excellent stress-reduction tool.

2. Stress Seriously Impedes Weight Loss and Hampers Your Fitness Gains

a. We know that stress can increase cardiovascular risk, but it can also lead to increased belly fat and weight gain. It does this by influencing our hormones. With chronic stress comes chronically elevated levels of glucocorticoids in our bloodstream. These hormones increase our sugar cravings and lead to overeating. The glucocorticoids REDUCE our cells’ sensitivity to leptin. Leptin communicates with our cells about how much fat to store and when to stop eating. When we develop resistance to leptin we do not know when to stop eating.


***So how does stress mess with our hormones? Let’s dive a little deeper into this (if you want to geek out with me): The hypothalamus, when it senses a stressor, produces CRH (corticotropin releasing hormone), which then stimulates the anterior pituitary gland to produce ACTH, which then stimulates the adrenal gland to produce cortisol. Typically, when cortisol (see above, aka glucocorticoids) gets high, the message is sent to the hypothalamus and the anterior pituitary that “hey, let’s shut it down for a while, we have plenty of cortisol.” So, what happens with CHRONIC stress is this feedback system gets a bit skewed. When we let stress get the best of us for too long, our hypothalamus and anterior pituitary are no longer getting the clear message to shut down cortisol production and so we are left with super high cortisol levels…all.the.time. And again, as stated above, the cortisol causes increased sugar cravings and leads to overeating…sooooo one big, nasty cycle that leads straight to belly fat, weight gain, and cardiovascular risk.
b. Weight loss aside, stress can also impact your fitness goals. Some Finnish researchers did a study in which they compared VO2 Max (how much oxygen your body uses during a workout). They found that those who rated their stress levels highest saw the least improvement in VO2 max, despite doing the same workouts as everyone else. Do you feel like you are working just as hard as the person next to you yet you aren’t seeing the same gains? Check your stress.

So that’s all the bad news: Stress.Is.Bad. We all knew it, now we have a little more science behind the WHY. So what’s the good news? There are many strategies available to us, that if we conscientiously put them to use, can help us to reduce our levels of stress, lose the weight, prevent injury, increase our mental focus, and help us to get all the fitness gains we want! Stay tuned for Part 2 – stress relief strategies!

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