How stress could be sabotaging your fitness efforts

An important meeting, heavy traffic, a fight with your spouse… these are just some of the ways that stress seeps into everyday life. Whilst our bodies are able to cope with both big and small amounts of stress, prolonged tension or anxiety could have negative effects on our health and wellbeing. Even in the short-term, the symptoms caused by stress could undermine fitness goals and make getting healthy more of an uphill battle.

However, there are ways to fight back against the ill effects stress can have on our bodies. Here are three stress signs that could be holding you back, and how to help keep them from ruining your fitness routine.

After a stressful day, many of us may reach for a snack to ease our anxiety. This may make us feel better in the short term, but “stress eating” can have longer term effects on our health and fitness.

In response to stressful situations, the body releases cortisol, a hormone that increases appetite. Long term stress may cause your cortisol level to remain high, which often leads to overeating. In some cases, our stress switch can get stuck in the “on” position, making it even harder to return to normal cortisol levels.

Stress also seems to affect the foods we like to eat. Some studies have shown that people experiencing stressful situations tend to favour foods that are high in fat and sugar. This may be part of the body’s efforts to protect itself. Fat and sugar-filled foods appear to slow activity in the parts of the brain that produce stress-related emotions. In this way, “comfort food” may actually live up to its name—by comforting our mind when it needs calm the most.

However, any extra calories eaten (particularly if they are high in fat, sugar or both) could make it harder to maintain a healthy weight or lose extra kilos. Stress eating may also create a harmful cycle. One study found that people who were already overweight were more likely to gain additional weight when they felt stressed.

Try this
Stress eating can be a very unintentional habit, and you may not even realise when you do it. A simple food diary—one where you track your mood and what you’ve eaten—could help spot patterns in your diet. If you find that stress eating is an issue for you, try to lessen the urge to snack on unhealthy foods by keeping nutritious alternatives on hand.

Insomnia and sleep deprivation
Stress and anxiety can also wreak havoc on the body’s sleep cycle. Though insomnia can be caused by many factors, people dealing with stressful situations may find that this is a big contributor.

The exact link between sleeplessness and stress is still being studied, but many believe that it is fairly intuitive. When we’re stressed, our body tends to respond in ways that make sleep more difficult. This could include an increased heart rate, a higher body temperature or having a hard time quieting the mind. These symptoms could make it harder to fall or remain asleep, and may even increase feelings of stress by worrying that you’re not getting enough sleep.

Getting poor sleep—if you’re able to sleep at all—could affect your physical wellbeing in a couple ways. Long-term insomnia may mean that you’re too fatigued to work out or feel that spare time is better spent trying to catch up on lost slumber. Poor sleep has also been linked to overeating, specifically fatty foods. We’ve already discussed how this type of diet can undermine weight goals, particularly if the stress persists.

Try this
Sleep deprivation can quickly take its toll on your body and mind, but worrying about how much sleep you’re getting (or not getting) often makes things worse. Instead of obsessing over the hours you spend in bed, try introducing good sleep hygiene habits into your routine. Creating a more restful and less stressful environment could help you quiet your mind before drifting off to sleep.

Tense muscles
This seemingly innocent symptom of stress could be more harmful than you think. Muscle tension is the body’s way of guarding itself against injury or pain, making it almost like a reflex in some stressful situations. But with the symptoms we’ve already looked at, chronic stress and resulting muscle tension could have long-term impacts on our health.

Tense muscles can be painful, and chronic tension may even lead to other problems. Migraines have been linked to long-term muscle tension in the shoulders, neck and head. Tight muscles may even affect your ability to breathe, as the tension may leave you short of breath or may even trigger an asthma attack in extreme cases.

Poor breathing could seriously hinder exercise efforts, but simple muscle tension may even cause problems. Taut muscles may leave some people more prone to injury, particularly to the back and neck. If the injury is serious enough, this could mean pausing a fitness routine for weeks (or possibly longer), and could affect weight loss and other fitness goals.

Try this
Relaxation techniques could help reduce muscle tension caused by stress. This might include things like meditation or mindful breathing. Yoga may also be a good activity to add to your routine. Its combination of gentle stretching and controlled breathing can be a great way to relieve stress or help fight it before it gets beyond your control.

Stress less
We may be able to completely rid our lives of stress, but with a few simple steps we could make it more manageable. Resetting the body and mind after a stressful event could be an important part of maintaining a healthy weight and staying fit. If you’re struggling with your health, speak with a doctor to discuss how stress may be impacting your efforts.

Author bio: Momentum Life is a leading provider of life insurance products in New Zealand.