What’s Stress Got To Do With It? Part One: Physically

Ok, so we all know that stress can be harmful to us physically, emotionally, and mentally…that’s what everyone keeps saying, right? But, did you know that it could just well be the culprit standing on your way to weight loss and feeling fit and lean! That’s right, I said it. Maybe it is not that fad diet or the newest exercise program that will finally help you shed those pounds. Maybe it is not the newest weight loss pill or supplement. Maybe we need to refocus, rethink, and finally address the real issue… Stress!

Because stress affects us in various forms, I will break up this topic into three series over the course of my next three newsletters. This will give you ample time to put each lesson into high gear and start applying the action steps towards lowering the stress in your body. So, lets talk stress and, really, what’s stress got to do with it?

What the heck is stress, anyway?

Stress is produced through many pathways: physically, nutritionally, emotionally, and environmentally. Stress increases the production of a hormone called cortisol and it is created to deal with stress in the human body. Cortisol is secreted by the adrenal glands to signal to the rest of body that energy must be conserved. Since skeletal muscle is the most inefficient tissue in the body when it comes to energy storage, cortisol will cause the stressed body to turn on its muscle stores as its first possible source of energy. What does that mean? It means that our precious muscle that we work so hard to build and maintain (and that keeps us lean and mean looking), gets broken down first! What?? Yes, you heard me right! Muscle gets broken down. Fat, on the other hand, is the most energy-efficient tissue in the body. So, because fat is so efficient for energy, cortisol slows down your thyroid to conserve fat stores. Simply put, high stress breaks down muscle and stores extra fat and, since more lean body muscle keeps you burning more calories throughout the day, muscle is NOT something you want to lose! So, for those who are trying to lose fat, it is vital to keep cortisol levels low as not to inhibit your progress. That means, keeping all forms of stress at bay is paramount in weight loss!

Part One: Physically

Exercise has many benefits, including increased fat loss, stronger bones and musculature, healthier joints, and a healthier heart. Unfortunately, just like any other thing in life, too much of a good thing can be negative. Now, listen up, I am all for balance when it comes to exercise and I preach over and over the importance to focusing on strength, cardio, and flexibility in a balanced workout program. BUT, I still have clients come to me year after year bragging about how many miles and hours that they log on the treadmill/elliptical/bike and how exhausted they feel after an hour of cardio but express frustration that they still can not seem to lose the belly fat! Through my training and teaching and studying, the cardiovascular exercise and cortisol connection seem to be the least understood and, honestly, the less accepted. It still plagues some people’s minds that more is better and that if they could only go an extra 5 or 10 or 15 minutes, that will be the weight loss secret! I know some of you are shaking your heads and doubting me right this instant, but listen up…cardio in excess of two to three hours a week can lead to problems because of increased production of cortisol. These problems include decreased fat metabolism and a weakened immune system. Moderate levels of cardio have been shown to decrease levels of stress, but too intense and too often bouts of cardio increase levels of stress. It is as simple as that!

So, how do you know if you are overtraining and raising the stress levels in your body to detrimental levels? Understanding exactly how much to exercise can be tricky. No activity is worse than some, while too much may be worse than none at all. The ideal lies somewhere in between – though not necessarily in the middle, but rather smack dab in the “just enough” section. Every body is different! According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), some signs that you may be over stressing the body are:
1. Decreased performance. Slower reaction times, reduced speeds and lowered endurance levels are all common signs of overtraining.
2. Agitation, moodiness, irritability or lack of concentration. Too much exercise and too little rest can wreak havoc on the hormones and cause mood swings and an inability to concentrate.
3. Excessive fatigue and malaise. A body that never has a chance to fully recover from a previous workout will continue to feel more and more fatigued. Some people describe this feeling as “heavy legs.”
4. Increased perceived effort during normal workouts. Overtraining takes a toll on the body, and workouts that were once a breeze can begin to feel like a grind.
5. Chronic or nagging muscle aches or joint pain. Overused muscles and joints can cause constant aches, which may go unnoticed until the body is given proper rest.
6. More frequent illnesses and upper-respiratory infections. Too much exercise taxes all of the body’s systems and makes it more difficult to ward off infections.
7. Insomnia or restless sleep. During sleep the body has time to rest and repair itself. An overtrained body, however, is sometimes unable to slow down and completely relax, making it difficult to recover between workouts.
8. Loss of appetite. Overtraining can cause an increase in hormones such as epinephrine and norepinephrine that tend to inhibit appetite. The physical exhaustion and anxiety that often comes with overtraining can also have the same effect.
9. Chronically elevated heart rate at rest and during exercise. A clear sign of an overworked heart muscle is a chronically elevated heart rate. Also, people who overtrain will often find that it takes longer for their heart rate to return to normal after a workout.
10. Menstrual cycle disturbances in women. Exercising excessively and not consuming enough calories may disrupt a woman’s menstrual cycle. While some may experience irregular periods, others will stop menstruating altogether.

ACTION STEP:

Unless you are training for a specific athletic event, keep your cardio sessions under 45 minutes and your total training sessions an hour or less, performing under five sessions a week, and varying the type and intensity of the cardio that you perform. Interval training is an excellent form of cardio to fit into your workout regimen 1-2 times per week. You can do interval cardio sessions as featured on my website or you can do interval training sessions that incorporate cardio and strength. Try this interval workout by picking any form of cardio equipment that keeps you motivated and inspired.

1. Warm-up for 5 minutes at an approximate speed of 3 mph at a resistance level of 1 or 2.

2. Increase your intensity by increasing your speed and resistance levels for 7 minutes at an RPE of 6-7.

3. Perform the following exercises:

  • Lunges (with or without weights)
  • Squat with bicep curl and overhead press
  • Push ups ( knee or regular)
  • Burpees with jump
  • Bicycles
  • Bent over row (with dumbbells or bands)
  • Dips off chair or bench

**perform 10 repetitions of each as a circuit

4. Perform 7 minutes of moderate intensity cardio with a RPE of 6-7.

5. Repeat circuit in step #3.

6. Perform 6 minutes of moderate intensity cardio with a RPE of 6-7.

7. Repeat circuit in step #3.

8. Decrease intensity to complete a 5 minute cool down. RPE should be 1 or 2.

** RPE: Rate of Perceived Exertion- subjective rating assigned to your intensity
level of your exercise based on how hard you perceive the activity is. Scale is
1-10 with 1 being “very easy” and 10 being “very very hard.”

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