During an initial consult, I always question my clients about their activity level, in particular how often and what types of exercise they perform. The majority of my weight loss clients will say that they workout 5-7 (and sometimes more!) per week and can’t lose any weight. They often have great diets or follow a specific meal plan, count calories, meal prep,…. do EVERYTHING right, yet the weight doesn’t budge.
What is often common in these clients is their elevated stress levels due to a variety of reasons: Work, family, finances, and relationships etc.
You may be wondering what this has to do with impaired weight loss?
When the body is under stress a hormonal cascade occurs due to the action of adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. You may have heard of the term “Fight or Flight” which is a state your body goes into when under threat. The body’s sympathetic nervous system is activated due to the sudden release of hormones. The sympathetic nervous system stimulates the adrenal glands triggering the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline which contribute to the release of cortisol. Cortisol is a steroid hormone that has several functions, including the controlling of the blood sugar level during stress reaction. When stress is chronic, the adrenals continue to produce cortisol. Elevated cortisol levels disrupt the body’s blood glucose control by stimulating glucose secretion from stores in the liver and limiting the release of the hormone responsible for removing excess glucose from the blood stream, insulin. This results in high blood sugar levels. Eventually, more insulin is secreted to remove the excess glucose once cortisol levels have dropped, but this cycle results in poor glucose control which also makes losing weight very difficult, as the excess glucose can be stored as fat. Therefore, managing cortisol and insulin levels are both important when trying to lose weight.
Here’s where excess exercise comes into the picture.
HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) and heavy load weight training increases cortisol levels. Repetitive workouts of this nature are therefore perceived as a stress to the body. Coupled with external stressors that we are faced with in our day to day lives, it is evident that adjustments to your workout regime is paramount to weight loss success. Whilst it seems counterproductive to weight loss to STOP and REDUCE these forms of exercise, oftentimes it is the missing link of the weight loss picture.
How do you fix the problem?
Incorporating a mixture of both yin and yang style exercise in your workouts is an easy way of moving your body while supporting your adrenals and excess cortisol. This means mixing up your HIIT and heavy weight training workouts with some restorative sessions such as yoga or pilates, bike riding, walking and stretching.
Control your stress levels. If work, family and relationships are a major stress in your life, make changes where you can so that you manage your stress (and your hormones) better and therefore stop the consequent hormonal cascade that occurs.
Studies have shown that meditation reduces cortisol levels so practising for even 10 minutes per day will go a long way to improving your stress levels. You can do this first thing in the morning or last thing at night – make it a priority!
Get adequate sleep and schedule in rest days. The body heals when at rest, so schedule in the time regularly to have some down time. Develop a healthy bedtime routine, avoiding stimulants late in the day, reducing screen time 2 hours before bed, and getting at least 7-8 hours sleep per night. Try to aim to go to bed and wake at the same time each morning and night.
Seek help from a qualified practitioner who can assist with supporting your adrenals so that they function to their full potential.
Be kind to yourself! It’s ok to miss a day of exercise and sleep in or spend time with family and friends. Find what brings you joy to your life outside of exercise.