I am sure you have heard that stress can cause health problems.  You may have even heard that too much stress can make you gain or hang on to excess weight.  If you really want to make effective and lasting health and fitness changes, getting your stress under control is very important.

I am going to make my two key points right here up front, because I want to make sure everyone sees them.  Of course, you should read the whole article to understand these two points, but please hear this:

1) You need to realize that you may not be able to make changes if you are currently under a large amount of stress—your hormones may not allow it, as your body seeks to protect itself from the stress you are experiencing;

2) Starting a new exercise regime and changing your dietary habits will cause additional stress, and so may end up doing more harm than good.

That right there is kind of stressful, isn’t it?

Let’s unpack both of these.  Like I have mentioned before, one of the major problems our culture has with making health, weight, and fitness changes is that we don’t respect how our bodies are made.  Our bodies are amazingly designed to survive through all sorts of stress, through famine and drought, and even just the changes of food availability throughout the seasons.  Unfortunately, we have changed our world so much, our bodies don’t know what is going anymore.

First of all, our culture is chronically over-stressed.  Work, the changes in family and neighborhood dynamics, and the constant availability of stimulation make us a people on the edge.  We don’t know how to reduce it, or manage it.  In fact, most of the time we probably don’t even realize how stressed we really are, because it is “normal” these days.

Back in the day, stress would come and go, which is exactly how our bodies are made to handle it.  One way our bodies handle stress is to have cortisol store extra fat, especially around the abdomen.  We in the 21st century think WHAT GOOD IS THAT??!! but when we stop and think about the world our bodies are designed for, it makes perfect sense.  What was the most likely cause of ongoing stress?  Famine and drought!  Storing a little extra fat saved lives.

That is why being stressed may cause you to gain weight, and make it difficult to lose.  Your body is protecting itself.  Unfortunately, we can’t just tell our bodies “hey, the stress is coming from my jerk of a boss, not a famine” so our hormones chill out.  Our best option is to work on the stress.

Think of stress as a bucket.  There is only so much our bodies can handle. If you are overstressed, you will start to feel it: tired, anxious, trouble sleeping, craving junk foods.  When our stress levels go down, we will start feeling better, sleeping better, and eating better.

But what happens if we are already stressed, and decide to start a new exercise routine, or change our dietary habits?  Remember, think about caveman (or woman) You.  Suddenly exercising really hard 2-5 times a week isn’t being interpreted by your body as “finally, burning some calories”, it is being received as “aah, we are being chased by tigers and enemies regularly, must protect self!”  And suddenly cutting calories, or removing a whole food group isn’t going to be received as “oh good, we’re eating better!”, it’s going to be “oh no, famine!”

If you are at a healthy level of stress, and you make these changes wisely (starting slow, and preferably with only one at a time), your body will adjust.  But if your stress bucket is already full, and you take on too much drastic change at one time, your body will likely say “no way”, and put a brake on weight loss.  Then you will also be prone to stress and exhaustion problems like insomnia, reduced immunity, and heightened risk of injury.

So, be smart.  Take consideration of your body for what it is: designed to keep you alive and well, not designed to be manipulated in our wild 21st century first world.  Work on lessening, and managing your stress (that’s a whole other post!), and when you are ready to make changes, take your time and let your body adjust to your new normal!