Have you been trying to get rid of that last bit of belly fat with far less success than you’d expect, given your efforts? Doing everything right, according to what “they” say, but it still persists; that last 5, 10, or 20lbs right down there? DO your kids jokingly call you “muffin top”, no matter how you try and lose your fat? Well, stop getting all worked up, there may be a reason for it that goes beyond exercise and diet, and getting all worked up may actually be at the root of your problem.
Sure, you’ve been told that fat loss all comes down to the big two body sculpting tools. No, I’m not referring to scalpel and suction, either. It’s diet and exercise, but what happens when, despite your best efforts, those two seem to be unable to work their magic any longer? It’s time to dig deeper, and see what’s really holding you back.
It seems no matter who you ask, there’s one constant about modern life; stress. Busy schedules, financial pressures, medical problems of yourself and loved ones, and the overall pace of life all contribute to the evil force from the dark side. If you’ve managed to avoid getting stressed out with everything going on these days, more power to you, but you’re in the minority.
The Belly Fat Connection
Medical science has been looking into stress as a health risk for some time now, and the more they find, the worse this little devil sounds. It appears that in addition to stress’s direct health effects, it can also be a major contributor to increased body fat, especially visceral fat, that insidious layer of lipids packed tight around your internal organs. This has been recently proven to cause or directly contribute to all manner of health problems, including some biggies like heart disease, strokes, and diabetes. Worse, it does so out of all proportion to its presence. Basically, a little goes a long way, the wrong way.
So, why does stress contribute to belly fat and how can it sabotage your best efforts to defeat fat? Basically, it comes down to one thing, a little hormone we like to call cortisol. Cortisol is a powerful hormone secreted by your adrenal gland. In a perfect world, you’d never need it. Back before the pyramids were built, the body used cortisol to get you the heck out of there when you got jumped by bears and cougars. Unless you hang on the mean streets of Chicago, there’s far less need for it today.
The problem is that it ramps you up for action, and not the kind you’re after on Saturday night, either. Among other things, it’s designed to keep you alive by turning you into Usain Bolt or Mauricio Rua should the situation demand it. To achieve that end it does 3 primary things to your body, and when you discover what they are, you’ll see why it’s so adept at helping you pack on the belly fat, too.
– Increases blood sugar – Any time your blood sugar increases, insulin is sure to follow. Unfortunately, that is one of the things that fat loves, because your body is predisposed to store fat when insulin levels are high.
– Increases insulin resistance
– Increases catabolism, destroying muscle tissue, or undermining it’s growth.
– Increases appetite
There are many other cortisol inspired effects, such as decreased immune response, that I’m not going to discuss here, because they don’t directly pertain to fat loss or gain.
If you’ve been trying to lose fat, only to feel like you’re pissing in the wind, you’re probably under a chronic stress load. In response, your adrenal gland secretes cortisol, and because you’re chronically stressed to some degree, your levels never return to normal. The key is to destress (not distress, that’s the condition you’re trying to avoid) and give your hormones a break for a change. How can you do that? After all, just turning it all of is far easier said than done. There are just too many things going on in the average person’s life for that.
Anti- Stress Strategies
So, if you can’t turn it off, how can you minimize it, so that you can get back to the fat loss business? There are two effective strategies here, and you’ll probably want to incorporate them both to some degree.
The first is stress avoidance. After all, if you don’t get stressed out in the first place, you won’t have to de-stress. Obviously, you want to avoid situations that elicit a stress response, especially the big ones, because they do more damage and take longer to recover from. Here are some ways you can help fight stress by heading it off at the pass:
If you commute through heavy traffic every day, you know that’s just stress waiting to happen, don’t you? Try to shift your commute time or route so that you miss the peak traffic volumes. About 10 years ago, I began to leave for work at 5:00am instead of 6:00am. What a revelation! It was so much more relaxing driving when there are fewer cars on the road. I got to work in 20 minutes instead of an hour, too. That means I went from barely making it on time, to arriving over an hour and a half early!
As an added bonus, I saved a ton of fuel and cash because there was less time spent in stop and go, or stop and slow traffic, so I had more money to play with. I got to answer my emails in peace, and was all caught up when everyone else arrived at 7:00. That led to even less stress. All in all it was a great choice, and for me the trade of that for having to leave an hour earlier was well worth it. Maybe you would rather roll around in a broken glass and vinegar bath than sacrifice an extra hour of sleep at the altar of stress management, but I used to feel the same way, and I can tell you that it’s definitely worth a look. Let’s see, 20 easy minutes vs. 60 stuck in traffic hell minutes.
As far too many people can attest, the commute is just the beginning. Once you arrive at the job you’re probably all too lucky to have these days, the stress really begins in earnest. Pressure to meet goals, complete projects on time, finish all those reports that were supposed to be on your boss’s desk yesterday, and interact with co-workers, who may or may not be a picnic to deal with, can all add to the mountain of stress you’re under.
How much does workplace stress contribute to that extra jelly roll around the ole midsection? According to a 2010 study from the University of Rochester’s medical department on 2,782 individuals, not only can workplace related stress make you fat, it also boosts the likelihood you’ll be hit with depression, cardiovascular disease, or anxiety attacks. One way that workplace stress takes it’s toll on your belly is that it kills much of your motivation to exercise. According to lead study author, researcher Diana Fernandez, all that pressure you’re facing at work makes it all too likely that when you leave work you’re not going to the gym, but home to sit on the couch and watch TV.
That’s a shame really, because vigorous exercise is one of the best ways to destress after facing a stressful situation, which for many people is simply their daily life at a job they’re not all to thrilled to be at, but can’t afford to give up. The study actually said as much, and pointed to exercise as a key to facing down stress.
Another way the Rochester study found that workplace stress affects weight gain is that it can often lead to poor quality sleep. As I’ve posted on before, scientists have found direct correlations between poor sleep and fat gain. This is one more study that adds weight to that link.
Here’s another great tip: Take 10 minutes out in the middle of the day and destress. Sure, you think you can’t find the time, but the 10 minutes will more than likely be made up by greater efficiency. On top of that, you’ll feel better and be a much nicer person to be around. Just how are you supposed to de-stress in the 10 minutes?
There are plenty of ways, including: listening to relaxing music in a quiet room, vigorous exercising, sex (another benefit of working from home), breathing exercises, writing, meditation, listening to comedy, and doing yoga. Whatever you choose, try and pick your destress time immediately after your most stressed out time of the day, if you have one. Many of these stress relief techniques require some practice before they’re really effective, but if you put in the time, they’ll deliver for you.
A recent Wake Forest University study revealed that it’s not only humans that demonstrate a direct link between stress and visceral fat. They completed a study using monkeys, and found that they showed a similar pattern of stress induced fat gain. Worse, CT scans showed that virtually of the fat gain was of the visceral (belly fat to you and me) variety.
Why does this suck? Because belly fat isn’t like other fat. It is active, meaning that instead of merely sitting there, soaking up all the extra calories you can throw at it, belly fat is active. It actually strives to preserve itself through various mechanisms that affect your metabolism. One of the most powerful is hormone release that alter how your body metabolize carbohydrates. Yes, what you always suspected is true; your fat really is fighting against you when you try to get rid of it.
It’s kind of a catch 22 when it comes to workplace related stress. Financial problems bring their own brand of stress, and it is a powerful one to be sure. Earn less money and have more stress, in many cases. So there is stress inducing pressure on many levels when it comes to workplace stress. It’s the “If I could only bring home that big bonus” syndrome, in which you get one stress variety by trying to avoid another.
Back in 2000 a Yale study found that even women who were not predisposed to be overweight could gain fat due to stress. In fact, lead investigator on the study, Elissa S. Epel, Ph.D. said this of the research results she discovered while at Yale’s psychology department: “Greater exposure to life stress or psychological vulnerability to stress may explain their enhanced cortisol reactivity. In turn, their cortisol exposure may have led them to accumulate greater abdominal fat.”
The Yale study also determined that stress not only has an impact fat gain, but on fat distribution. It can shift fat gain from subcutaneous fat (the more benign kind), to a larger percentage of visceral fat (the bad kind). It points to stress related hormones such as cortisol as primary reasons for this.
To check out more on how hormones such as cortisol can help make you fat, and more importantly, what you can do to stop them, check out my post on cortisol and leptin from a few months ago.
If you have any ways that you’ve used to combat stress, please leave a comment. It could really help someone. I and the other readers would love to hear about them.