Health / Weight Loss

Stress is Sabotaging Your Workout in Surprising Ways

The physical effects of stress and why it isn’t helping your workout.

Work piling up, a constant stream of social engagements, a dating life to keep up with—sometimes life’s to-do list can feel daunting. We’re all well-versed in the ways stress affects our emotional health. However, we’re not always knowledgeable about the physical toll it takes. Persistent stress can seriously sabotage your workout and fitness goals. Read on to learn how to stay mindful and recognize the tell-tale physical signs of too much stress.

Five Ways Stress Hurts Your Workout

Your brain plays tricks on you

According to research done by the Journal of Sport and Exercise Physiology, cognitive fatigue (or brain tiredness) brought on by stress can make you think you’re working out harder and more effectively than you actually are. A study in which expert runners ran two races on a track put this to the test. They ran once while experiencing cognitive fatigue and once without. The runners finished with much faster times when they weren’t under stress. But they felt they had put in the same amount of effort both times. In short: a busy, stressed brain makes for fake fitness success.

Similarly, worry and anxiety can stunt performance by decreasing coordination and motor control. A study from Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center explains that stress has an immediate effect on your cerebellum—the information processor in your brain responsible for movement and motor control throughout the body.

Recovery slows

Working out puts its own type of stress on your body. Muscles are broken down and rebuilt and as a result you become stronger. While this is a normal cycle on its own, the process gets mucked up when your body is dealing with another kind of stress simultaneously. Persistent emotional stress limits your body’s ability to recover from other forms of stress, including exercise. In short, if your battery is already drained, adding emotional duress to the mix is a recipe for disaster.

In two studies— one from the Journal of Strength Conditioning Research and the other from Yale University—participants’ stress levels were measured before doing a single workout. After the fact, their recovery time and levels were recorded. Both tests found that participants with lower stress levels experienced greater recovery in a shorter amount of time.

Risk of injury goes up

Two products of stress can result in increased risk of injury: excessive muscle tension and decreased focus.

Muscle tension happens when the physiological effects of stress cause blood vessels to compress and blood flow to nerves, tendons, and muscles to lessen. Waste continues to fill those muscles and oxygen drops, resulting in tension.

Tension can cause pain and muscle spasms that may move from one group of muscles to another. The pain can worsen with more stress, so relieving it is paramount. Stretch and take deep, relaxing breaths. Yoga flows and routines are ideal for calming yourself down. Other methods for relief include massage therapy, acupuncture, and (ironically) movement. The latter helps you loosen up. When paired with a fitness routine, it can make you resilient to recurring tension.

Decreased focus isn’t as easy to understand. Keeping a flexible focus is pertinent to cardio activities. If you’re experiencing emotional stress, you may find yourself focused on your problems and not able to split your attention to the various elements of your workout that require focus. For example, if you’re running on a treadmill, you need to pay attention to your pace and time as well as your form. Stress makes it difficult to focus on multiple things at once. This could lead to working out with poor form or missing the moments when you need to change your pace. You may also miss your body’s cues that it is exhausted and you need to back off of a difficult workout.

Weight loss gets harder

Long-term stress can ruin on your weight loss efforts. It all comes down to a hormone called cortisol. Dubbed the “stress hormone,” cortisol’s purpose is to get you out of danger by raising blood sugar, blood pressure, and controlling your immune reaction. Good? Not always.

Cortisol is released in higher amounts when you’re feeling intense pressure. Higher levels of cortisol encourage insulin production which can rev up your sugar cravings. As if you didn’t want sweets already (you know, because of all that stress). On top of that, extra cortisol may attack muscle mass, slowing your metabolism dramatically.

In one study, 500 participants were monitored to see if sleep, depression, and yes—stress—have a direct effect on weight loss. Each person was given a diet and exercise plan that was low fat, low sugar, and full of fruits and veggies. Their daily caloric intake was reduced by 500 calories and they performed 180 minutes of exercise per week. In the following weeks they were weighed, kept food journals, and recorded any stress, depression, and insomnia they experienced.

Results were quick to show that stress and sleep were the strongest indicators of weight loss or gain. Those who experienced little-to-no stress and got more than 6-8 hours of sleep regularly, lost significantly more weight than those with high stress and lack of sleep. In fact, some with reportedly high levels of stress gained weight throughout the study.

Stored fat increases

Remember those cravings and the slowdown in metabolism that cortisol causes? Well, it also triggers the storage of more fat cells. The fat cells surrounding your abdomen are sensitive to insulin and more responsive to cortisol. This is why any gained fat will first reside near your stomach and not, say, your bum. As stress levels go up, cortisol goes up, and so does fat storage.

The moral of the story? You’re unlikely to see the results you want to see from your fitness routine if you’re living in a constant state of high stress. It’s important to find ways to decompress. Consider adding yoga to your routine or trying fitness journaling.

Health Weight Loss

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