Are you working harder than ever at the gym only to see the scale go up? Don’t underestimate the power of stress to thwart all your good work. Stress is more than just a string of hard days. It is also a reaction to calorie restriction or change of diet. Couple that diet with twice weekly wind sprints, and your body can get overwhelmed with just coping. Losing weight, especially after 40, is not so simple a formula as Calories – Exercise = Perfect Shape.
Stress comes in many forms. Some of it is helpful, like weightlifting for building muscle, but fighting traffic all the way home will not make anyone a better person. Caring for toddlers makes them better people, but will wear down the best mother. Environmental toxins in water, air and food are often overlooked, although they can significantly strain the body’s systems. A radical new diet can be harder on the body than a bout with the flu once you add the mental stress of change to the physical stress of starvation. Getting angry when the body predictably goes into conservation mode adds even more burden.
Stress triggers cortisol to handle an immediate stressor. But when the stress continues, the related adrenaline levels impact insulin production, which promotes sugar cravings, fluid retention and weight gain. While a good, solid workout or game of basketball can be a good way for a man to blow off steam, a woman’s body isn’t geared for adrenal response. When cortisol floods her system, the nurturing hormone oxytocin is produced as a relaxation mechanism and metabolism slows. In order to continue to lose weight, she must choose gentler strategies like a yoga class or walking to counteract the stress first. Listen to your body: if you are overwhelmed, sometimes a lovely candlelit dinner is more productive than another bout of exercise.
The body needs an occasional break from emergency mode so it can get down to the necessary business of taking out the trash and doing regularly scheduled maintenance. Hormone shifts with age or chronic sleep loss can trigger insulin resistance, which means the body is less able to deal with insults. Approaches to health need to adapt with age and stress levels.
The new norm has to become intentionality and long term achievements. Instead of setting ultimatums with your body that, come Monday, I will start the Couch to 5K program and go ketogenic – just make a commitment to swap out one bad habit for a better one. Substitute a cheese stick or a big bunch of grapes for that bag of Skittles at the 3pm slump. Even a small thing can compound over time. As that substitution becomes part of your routine and a new idea appears that sounds good, add it at that time. But beware of succumbing to the “one new thing per week” schedule temptation; it merely hits the reset button on the stress spiral.
Like most success, it’s really about effective management. One step at a time toward your health goals. Don’t sweat the days that go up in flames; just get back on track tomorrow. Small, intelligent steps done routinely will soon result in better health that is permanent.