Is Stress Affecting Your Fitness Progress?





Daily life is full of stressful situations...


Stress affects everybody and, unfortunately, aiming to completely eliminate all stress is unrealistic for most of us.


Nonetheless, reducing, or at least utilising methods to help manage stress, is a good idea for overall wellbeing, as chronic stress has been linked with multiple serious health conditions.


You're already familiar with the immediate, short-term physical, psychological and behavioural symptoms that stress may cause:


  • muscle tension*

  • changes in breathing

  • headaches

  • increased heart rate

  • anger & frustration

  • anxiety, panic or sense of overwhelm

  • being unable to concentrate or focus


*(particularly around the neck, upper back and shoulders - although, this varies among individuals as some people "hold their tension" in different places. Next time you notice yourself feeling stressed, try to observe where your body feels tense).


Stress can potentially cause a variety of other responses within your body that you will be less aware of. Some of which, unfortunately, might present an additional barrier to achieving many common health & fitness goals...


Again, the extent to which these actually effect you will depend on your consistent, long-term stress levels or how well you cope with that stress. A minor incident, in isolation, which causes you to feel upset for a few minutes or hours is not going to disrupt your long-term progress.


Chronic, long-term or poorly managed stress, on the other hand, may not only be affecting your overall long-term health & wellbeing, but may also be interfering with your progress towards specific fitness goals...


Starting with one of the most observable...




Stressful Situations Are A Distraction From Your Health & Fitness Programme


Exercise can be a great method of stress relief.


High energy workouts, eg., spinning, HIIT, sprint workouts, weight training, sparring/pad work, provide a safe way to release aggression and energy, while forms of exercise that require a lower, more consistent intensity and/or a high degree of concentration, such as Pilates, or perhaps those that are even deliberately designed to promote relaxation, eg., some yoga classes, can provide an opportunity to process thoughts and manage stress in an environment that is separate from the source of stress.


This works well in theory, based on the assumption that you can simply remove yourself from your stressful situation and focus on a workout instead. In practice, this won't always be the case.


Stress is more likely to be a distraction, rather than an instigator of a good workout or a prompt to maintain healthy eating. The causes and sources of your stress will usually need to be dealt with, potentially taking the time and/or energy (physical energy AND mental energy) that should have otherwise been allocated to your workout...


  • workouts often missed due to energy/time constraints, negative mood etc

  • positive eating habits may seem inconvenient or time/energy consuming compared to 'quick' solutions (such as takeaway food) in stressful scenarios (see below for the additional effects of stress on food/nutrition)


And even when you do 'turn up' to your workout, are you fully focussed and getting the most out of those workouts, or are you still distracted by unresolved stress?


A sub-par workout every now and then is not going to derail an entire training programme, but what if most of your workouts are being affected by distractions?


Obviously, don't avoid exercising when you're stressed - the physical and psychological benefits easily outweigh any perceptions of a workout being less than optimal. Deliberately scheduling exercise as a method of managing stress is a good idea. But if your goals are more specific than simply managing stress, be aware of the possible effects on workout quality (and therefore your results).




The "Stress Hormone"


Cortisol is often dubbed the "stress hormone". While this is an oversimplification and largely misleading, it is useful to have some awareness of cortisol: what it is, it's roles in the body (including positive and negative effects), and how it could be influenced by lifestyle factors, including stress.


Cortisol is a hormone that serves various vital functions in healthy people, including roles in metabolism and regulation of your 24-hour sleep/wake cycle (levels gradually rise in the early hours of the morning until ideally peaking at your usual wake-up time (helping you to wake up and get out of bed) and then hopefully reduce gradually over the course of the day allowing for rest/sleep at night).


In other words, despite the association with stress, cortisol is NOT a "bad" hormone per se.


One interesting feature of cortisol, is that like adrenaline, it also acts as a 'fight or flight' hormone, meaning that during times of stress, cortisol is released, initiating a variety of potentially useful functions such as releasing sugar (glucose) into your blood (for energy).


From an evolutionary point of view, this is extremely helpful. In the face of danger, the body goes into a stress response, part of which is the release of cortisol and therefore the increased availability of glucose to the muscles to be used in an appropriate response (fight or flight). Once the danger has been averted, the body returns to it's resting state (ie. the stress response is designed to deal with short-term emergencies).


That response to stress made perfect sense when your ancestors were being chased by a predator or fighting for food/territory etc. The stress-response, and the immediate, short-term supply of energy was vital for survival...


Compare that to spending 8 hours (or more!) feeling stressed at work plus any additional stress that you face at home. Your body/brain interprets this persistent stress in the same way as the short-term stress in the example above...


Your body still prepares for 'fight or flight' via the same mechanisms. The difference, of course, is that firstly, the stress is likely to persist. Secondly, you're probably not going to physically run away from, or fight, your source of stress (which would burn the glucose/energy being supplied into your bloodstream). You are going to sit at your desk, and work (or procrastinate?). In other words, your body pumps glucose into your blood (among other responses to rises in cortisol) in anticipation of physical activity which doesn't take place. In healthy people, this signals the release of insulin to remove/prevent the build up of glucose in the blood (that's a good thing, but again, it's supposed to be a short-term response). However, if your body is constantly fighting to remove excess glucose from the blood in this way... two potential problems can arise:


  1. increased chance of dumping excess glucose (converted to fat) into your fat cells

  2. increased risk of insulin resistance (apart from raising your risk of pre-diabetes and Type 2 diabetes, further increases the chances of storing excess energy as body fat)


That's just one example of how elevated cortisol might affect your physiology...


In the present day, rather than responding to physical threats, the stress-response is usually a result of the daily causes of stress that our modern lives produce and that we all consider normal: work related stress, anxiety, financial worries etc. The relentless nature of this stress can cause the stress-response to become a much longer-term, more permanent state, rather than a short-term reaction...


  • consistently elevated blood glucose levels

  • increased risk of developing insulin resistance

  • increased appetite (ie. comfort eating)

  • reduced muscle mass (or at the very least, reducing/preventing the gain of new muscle mass)

  • lower sleep quantity & quality

  • reduced immune function...


... can all result from having excess cortisol levels for longer than ideal periods of time.


The bottom line, at least from a performance and body composition point-of-view, is a potential increase in body fat, reduced muscle mass and a lower metabolic rate (the worst case scenario if you are aiming to improve body composition through increased muscle and reduced body fat).


This is a good time to repeat... cortisol itself is not bad a 'bad' hormone (firstly, without it, you would find it significantly harder to get out of bed in the morning!). However, there is a natural order when it comes to the daily fluctuations of cortisol release, and for many people, routine stress is potentially resulting in higher than ideal cortisol levels at the wrong times. Any method to reduce or manage stress should ideally reflect this.


For example:


  • As a minimum, you could try to manage stressful activities (if they are unavoidable) to work alongside your wake-sleep cycle. In other words, move activities and scenarios that may be causing regular increases in cortisol levels to an earlier time and prioritise relaxation later in the day, especially before bed.

  • Schedule regular breaks, at optimum times, to focus on reducing stress rather than enabling it to persist.

  • Also, look out for the physiological responses to stress and remain mindful of their origin (for example, are you physically hungry or is a stressful situation causing an 'emergency' increase in appetite shortly after lunch?)


It goes without saying, if you can reduce stress in the first place, or even find more effective ways of managing it (eg. yoga, meditation etc) then that would obviously be ideal...


"prevention is better than cure" ...


Avoiding all stress is unrealistic. But managing it and working to reduce the persistent nature of stress can help to make a real difference.




Stress Reduces Willpower & Accelerates 'Decision Fatigue'


How many times have to felt guilty for giving in to temptation, or chastised yourself for "having no willpower"?


It's common for people to label themselves as either 'having willpower', or 'NOT having willpower'. In reality, it's not so black and white... You do have willpower and self-discipline... there's just a limited amount of it. And after a certain amount of time, or more specifically - once a certain amount of mental energy has been used up each day, you're willpower/decision making ability starts to decline...


It's no coincidence that most of the situations where willpower is supposedly lacking are later in the day (eg., dessert or snacking after dinner) versus earlier in the day (avoiding a bar of chocolate after breakfast is (hopefully) a relatively easy and straightforward decision).


A reduction in willpower, or increase in decision fatigue, will inevitably occur for everybody at some point during the day. A number of factors determine your threshold...


One of these factors, is stress.


This may refer to the more obvious sources of stress such as a confrontation or arguement, general anxiety or the more consistent, but less obvious lifestyle related stressors such as having to make a high number of difficult or important decisions at work.


Either way, stress reduces your ability to make good decisions and your so-called "willpower".


That means, by extension, that stress is likely to correlate with poorer choices which ultimately have a negative effect on your results:


  • increased or more frequent snacking

  • poorer food/snack choices

  • higher risk of skipping workouts

  • lower workout quality/intensity/duration when you do still turn-up

  • increased sedentary behaviour

  • a general lack of consistency/discipline when it comes to general lifestyle choices*...


* such as drinking more alcohol than you should, watching more TV and going to bed late (which then also reduces your willpower/decision fatigue threshold further on the following day!) etc.




Motivation


In a perfect world, you would have an effective, perfectly designed, sustainable exercise programme that you never deviate from. Workouts would become so habitual that you would turn up and complete them automatically, no matter what.


But obviously in the real world your schedule is full of competing demands. In many cases, you'll still have to perform a decision process (even if it's subconscious) before deciding to do each individual workout. That process is influenced by your motivation to exercise at that moment.


When you have:

  • time

  • energy

  • you've slept well

  • and you are in a generally positive mood...


...more often than not, the positives outweigh the negatives (you feel "motivated"), and the workout happens.


Stress predictably has an effect on these decisions. Some people might feel more motivated (especially if the workout is high energy/aggression) but may still be distracted during the workout.


Many others will simply not have the mental energy/motivation to apply physical effort to a workout if they have already exhausted themselves during a stressful day or scenario (it's far more likely that you will skip a workout later in the day versus early in the morning, unless stress, or a bad decision, has also led to a poor night of sleep!).


Remember, due to the way we have evolved, we subconsciously interpret stress as a threat to our immediate safety and wellbeing. Often, your choices in these situations will reflect a desire for safety, relaxation and comfort!


Which may include...




Using Alcohol to "Unwind"


Within reason, most people can achieve their health & fitness goals without giving up all of thier favourite foods and drinks.


Including alcohol (in moderation).


Excess alcohol (plus mixers, sugars etc) will slow down (or prevent) fitness progress:

  • may contribute to excess calories (alcohol itself contains ~7 calories per gram)

  • may further contribute to excess calories via mixers and/or naturally occurring sugars etc

  • negatively affects a range of physiological processes that would otherwise contribute to your health & fitness (eg., workout recovery, hydration, appetite/cravings, sleep quality)

  • does NOT contribute any useful physical function

It's generally a bad idea to set goals that require excessively strict 'rules' as this will be make long-term sustainability unlikely. Eliminating all alcohol for the duration of a programme can be excessive and again, within reason, is unnecessary for most scenarios. However, it's also a good idea to set boundaries due to the reasons outlined above. That generally means planning and accounting for "treats" including alcohol that are included within your plan.


A reliance on alcohol to "de-stress" is uncontrolled and open to emotional decision making (as well as being vulnerable to decision fatigue later in the day). This "coping" mechanism is subject to unpredictable emotional responses and will ultimately interfere with the processes that lead to most positive fitness goals.


Plus, as we all know deep down, you're not really dealing with the stressful problem. If alcohol is a frequently used "solution", you are not only suffering the possible consequences of that habit, but the original source of stress, and it's implications on your health & fitness, are clearly also a persistent or recurring feature of your lifestyle.




Changes In Appetite & Cravings


Stress can often trigger an increase in perceived hunger and cravings. This is one of the many reasons that it is important to remain mindful of the foods/nutrients/portion sizes that will contribute to your target outcomes compared to what you are actually eating.


Obviously, if you feel hungry, this might be for a good physical reason. Are you monitoring food intake... are you under-eating? Have you left too much time in between meals?


Don't ignore physical hunger...


However, if you have just eaten a meal, you are hydrated, you are well rested (not lacking sleep), your nutrition plan is appropriate for your goals and your food intake is successfully reflecting that plan, then you might consider that your cravings are being influenced by psychological factors, including stress.


Predictably, this can lead to eating (and drinking) excess calories.


As well as cortisol, levels of the "hunger hormone" ghrelin, and the "satiety hormone" leptin can be influenced by stress. These hormones have a powerful influence over whether you feel full, or feel hungry, directly influencing the amount of food that you eat via increased eating frequency and in many cases larger portion sizes.


Again... This does NOT mean that all hunger is psychological. The point is simply that stress, especially when persistent and poorly managed, can have an influence on the hormones and mechanisms that would otherwise help to guide appetite and food intake...


Deliberately ignoring hunger signals is NOT the solution... reducing and managing stress is!




Food Choices


As well as frequency and amount of food, psychological stress has been shown to significantly affect food choice. Even in the short term (ie. making decisions shortly after a single stressful situation).


Stress stimulates a response from your body' sympathetic nervous system. A major function/effect of the sympathetic system is to ensure that adequate energy is available for "fight or flight". That means not only utilising energy stores from within the body, but also encouraging the intake of additional energy from food. In other words, stress can specifically cause an increase in appetite for high energy foods, that may not have occurred otherwise (if you've ever wondered why you feel hungry relatively soon after eating, this may be at least part of the cause).


Research supports the idea that because our brains perceive stress as a threat to our immediate wellbeing, the cravings we consequently experience tend to be for foods that provide quick access to energy, a lot of energy and/or require little effort to obtain...


ie. fast food (fast), foods that can be delivered via an app (easy) and foods high in sugar and or/fat (high or quick energy) etc...


...probably not the foods that are on your 'ideal' list.




Practical Strategies


It is of course unrealistic to attempt to remove all stress from your life.


And probably counter-productive too... In some cases short-term stress (physical and/or psychological) can be useful (providing motivation, or in producing physical changes in response to exercise, for example).


Nonetheless, if/when stress becomes potentially harmful, it's useful to have an arsenal of tactics to help manage it...


Exercise: Yet another reason to maintain regular exercise. Exercise burns energy, making use of the otherwise inappropriate "fight or flight" responses to stress. Exercise can also release mood boosting endorphins, counter-acting the inevitable negative moods that come with chronic stress. Exercise can also help reinforce/promote quality sleep due to the body's need for recovery.


Stretching, massage, yoga etc: Stress can cause a build up of muscle tension. Remain mindful of tension promoting postures and bad habits that stress could encourage... ideally try to avoid them, and employ counter measures as/when necessary, or simply as a very healthy precaution.


Plan and maintain an appropriate diet for your health & fitness goals: One of the potential benefits of having some structure to your diet is that you are less likely to veer drastically of course as a result of spontaneous decision making. If you have daily calorie and macronutrient targets to achieve, this can/should encourage self-accountability and appropriate food choices.


Mindfulness & Meditation: Whether you're a fan or not, evidence clearly shows that mindfulness and meditation can reduce the negative symptoms of stress. This could relate to the deliberate "practice" of meditation (shown to reduce cortisol levels) or simply developing an awareness of negative physical symptoms (poor posture, muscle tension etc), with the aim of avoiding bad habits that could result from mindlessly living with persistent high stress levels.


Stop Abusing Caffeine: Over-consuming caffeine papers over the cracks of a high-stress lifestyle. Could you maintain your daily routine without it? If not, maybe that's a sign that your body and mind are in need of some R&R. Remember "stress" can relate to a number of things (psychological, physical, a lack of sleep etc)... Not only could a high caffeine intake be "covering up" your stress, but could be contributing to it via it's effects on the body - potentially increasing cortisol and symptoms of anxiety. Like all sources of stress, a small, short-term amount (a cup of coffee, or two per day) is not going to do most people any harm (in moderation, coffee beans may even provide some health benefits). But a constant supply of caffeine, above recommended levels, and at inappropriate times (late in the day) may have a detrimental effect.


Be Ruthless In Maintaining Your Sleep Pattern: Sleep deprivation triggers a vicious stress cycle. (How is your mood early in the morning?) Is it really worth staying up late to watch another episode on Netflix? Could that "important" piece of work wait until tomorrow?


Consume Content Wisely: The news, social media, the Internet... be mindful of the content that you are consuming. How does it make you feel? Is it serving a useful purpose? Is it necessary to always be up to date with the latest gossip... the latest celebrity controversy... or the latest political scandal? Unless it's necessary for your own wellbeing (eg., a global health crisis), aim to curate your content. Consider removing anything that causes unnecessary stress and anxiety!


Give Yourself A Break: Learn how to stop and take a break!