We praise those who have enough motivation and willpower to stick to their scheduled spin classes, long runs and cardio sessions every week, but does having this much discipline result in desired weight loss? While exercise in general can bring incredible benefits to us, including improved cardiovascular health and building muscle that can increase metabolic rate, it may not always be a good thing for particular individuals.
I never thought I would be the person stating a comment like this, let alone write an article about it. I have been an athlete pretty much my entire life. Working out and training hard has played a large role in shaping not just my health (for better or for worse), but who I am. My independence, determination, intensity, and even risks I’ve taken in life I’ve attributed to developing a certain mindset as an athlete. This can be a good thing, as well as a not so good thing, especially when you keep pushing yourself and your body, physically and mentally, to the point of breakage.
Here’s how to know if that might be the situation you are in.
Exercise Can Make Problems with Stress WORSE
When I tell people they need to either cut back or stop training all together in order to lose weight, they look at me like I’m crazy. I get it! Exercise is considered the be-all and end-all of wellness in our culture, but the truth is, it can really be a stumbling block to weight loss efforts not to mention simple healing from chronic issues. Here’s what I’ve learned recovering from my own health issues and coaching others through the process in my practice.
The body recognizes and deals with stress in the same way, regardless of whether it stems from a poor diet, work, relationships, or excessive exercise, IT’S ALL STRESS!
The above maxim is true because our primal stress response has historically been triggered by environmental danger, such as being chased by a lion. Obviously this type of stress is irrelevant today, although the same mechanics due to stress are still very present in our bodies. The only difference is our primal stress response was short lived and came to an end once we found safety. In today’s world that safety net is hard to find.
According to Huda Akil, co-director of the Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience Institute at the University of Michigan:
“when stress is sustained or repeating or extreme, then all [the usual systems] gets disrupted, and eventually, you do it long enough and it starts impacting other systems … immune responses; it can affect the heart; it affects brain cells.”
This ongoing stress response can affect the hypothalamic-pituitary axis in the brain, negatively impacting the health of the thyroid and encouraging the development of symptoms of hypothyroidism, including weight gain, constipation, dry skin, hair loss, intolerance to the cold, loss of memory and concentration, irregular menstruation, infertility, and much more.
The body prioritizes survival, so losing weight takes a back seat when stress (survival mode – flight or fight) is high and especially when it is continuous.
How Does Stress Affect Weight Loss?
Because excessive stress can affect the thyroid, this is a large problem, as the thyroid has a large amount of control over metabolism. When trying to lose weight, this gland needs to be healthy and working properly to lose weight naturally. It’s not just metabolism the thyroid controls, there’s a host of other mechanisms in the body the thyroid is responsible for.
According to Chris Kresser, “Thyroid hormone directly acts on the brain, the G.I. tract, the cardiovascular system, bone metabolism, red blood cell metabolism, gall bladder and liver function, steroid hormone production, glucose metabolism, lipid and cholesterol metabolism, protein metabolism and body temperature regulation. You can think of the thyroid as the central gear in a sophisticated engine. If that gear breaks, the entire engine goes down with it.”
With thyroid issues at epidemic levels today, especially among women, they need to be careful about how they treat their bodies. Rest and mindful exercises are a better healing approach to decrease the constant sympathetic (fight or flight) state most are constantly experiencing.
Another hormone that is commonly increased with stress is cortisol. Extreme stress, including exercise, especially exercise that is of extended duration such as cardio, will elevate cortisol levels. According to the Mayo clinic, high levels of cortisol have been linked to sleep issues, weight gain (especially around the midsection), digestive issues, and even memory impairment.
Exercise and Nourishment
If a high activity routine is maintained for the long haul, the body needs more nourishment than normal. When stressed, metabolism uses B vitamins and magnesium in larger amounts, therefore it’s not surprising that most American’s are deficient in these nutrients. Exercise also increases free radicals in the body, requiring more antioxidant input to protect from rapid cell damage. For this reason, those who are highly active need to be careful at providing ongoing proper nourishment before and after exercise.
While we know that certain types of exercise (usually shorter bouts) can be great for our health, excessive sustained exercise like cardio for those who are already struggling with other health challenges, such as adrenal fatigue or extreme mental stress, is probably doing more harm than good. Addressing the underlying causes of weight gain is a must first.
If you’re concerned about calories which is why you’re exercising to lose weight, this should be the least of your concerns. Think about it this way, you burn more energy (calories) going about your day, sitting at your desk, and even sleeping than you could ever possibly burn exhausting yourself in a an hour spin class.
In the long run, if you’re already stressed and have other health issues you are dealing with, you’re only adding to your health problems and exhausting the adrenals more by incorporating a prolonged exercise regimen. If weight loss is your goal, focusing on diet is more effective and will not only show the best results, but will also help you to establish habits to nourish every system in your body using food as medicine. Then, adding in a reasonable exercise program to add strength and conditioning to a healthy body is icing on the cake.
Sensible Exercise, Achievable Weight Loss
If you’re struggling with any of the above symptoms, you need to address weight issues indirectly, focusing on the bigger picture which is healing your body and lowering the stress response.
A few great options instead of prolonged, exhaustive exercise routines is to work on healing your nervous system and hormones through the following:
- Practice mindfulness exercises like yoga that can take you from a fight or flight sympathetic mode to a relaxed, parasympathetic state of being which is when healing occurs.
- Switch to low impact exercises and do them in nature such as walking or hiking in a park or a simple dirt path. This does wonders for the mind and is extremely therapeutic, much more than walking on a treadmill in a gym could ever do.
- Sleep as much as you can (for as long as you can). So many of us are incredibly deprived of this simple necessity. This is the only chance your body has to truly activate detoxification mechanisms to full potential, playing clean up and repair. Don’t skip on this! This article on how to improve sleep and manage stress can help.