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A Common Barrier To Your Health and Fitness Goals

If asked to press a three-pound dumbbell overhead, it’s likely that many of us would be able to do so with relative ease. Now, imagine being asked to pause that overhead press at the top and hold it there for an hour or two. Or, imagine doing the same overhead press, then simultaneously handed a wrench, light bulb, cell phone and a large cup of coffee to hold. Sounds a bit ridiculous, doesn’t it?

Stress is very much the same way. We’re constantly dealing with ongoing stressors (often for more than just an hour or two), and many of us are juggling constant demands from multiple areas of life: personal relationships, parenting, family and work. From a physiological standpoint, we’re built to withstand stressors to a degree and for a certain amount of time. Stress can become problematic, however, when it’s chronic and coming at you simultaneously from several directions. From my experience as a dietitian, I’ve found that those who consistently keep food and symptom journals repeatedly draw similar correlations during times of chronic, unmanaged stress. They report sugar cravings, unwanted fat storage, trouble sleeping and even frequent colds and sniffles. If that sounds familiar, it’s time to take a proactive, purposeful stand in your stress management approach. Your metabolism and health deserve it. 

Tip 1: Aim for a full night’s sleep  

Repeat after me: sleep is non-negotiable. It would be easy to fill an entire series of blog posts on the crucial and far-reaching impacts of sleep. In your wellness journey, I implore you to make sleep a high priority. I promise you, that next episode or scroll of your social media feed is no match for the overwhelming benefits of a full, restful night’s sleep. When you’re under excess stress, sleep becomes even more important. Generally speaking, aim for at least seven hours of sleep, keeping in mind that seven hours of true sleep often can mean eight hours of actual time in bed. I’ve found that some clients may even need up to nine hours of sleep or so to feel rested. Every 15 minutes of nightly sleep counts, and aiming to hit the sack early is one of the best-kept secrets of the lean and fit. Shut the electronics off early, get in those PJs, drop the temperature to a comfortable cool in your bedroom and draw the blackout curtains closed — it’s time for bed. 

Tip 2: Ensure you have recovery days 

When grinding towards a specific goal — whether it's body composition, weight loss, overall health or athletic performance — it’s tempting to fill up the calendar with workouts most (if not all) days of the week. Between checking the box for longer, lower intensity cardio, HIIT sessions and resistance training, it can be too easy to stay busy with exercise while neglecting proper recovery strategies. On top of that, many of us are quick to channel our frustration or worry into a tough workout when we’re feeling stressed. While that may be more beneficial than other options (like stress eating, for example), it may not always be the best idea. 

Realize that exercise is a controlled, purposeful and necessary stress on your body (with countless benefits, of course). However, the concern of over training and under-recovering applies to more than just elite athletes. Many of us regular exercisers can fall into this pattern as well. Since our bodies can hormonally respond to stressors with excess cortisol (a catabolic hormone) — regardless of the source — it’s helpful to consider your cumulative stress in the context of your exercise programming. Under normal conditions, it’s important to give your body recovery times. Including days with walking, gentle yoga, stretching, foam rolling, sauna time and mobility work between the more intense sessions, can go a long way. During an ongoing acute stressor, an exceptionally busy or overwhelming phase, be sure to stop and take note of how you’re feeling. At times, scaling back can be more beneficial than digging in and ramping up the intensity. Often, our exercise progression depends on whether or not we recover well. While your workout approach may include the energy and mentality of a champion, make sure you recover like one, too. 

Tip 3: Stop guessing, start knowing 

With certain clients, I’ve learned that they can conceptually understand how stress impacts metabolism. Those who are interested in the science may even explain how it does so in physiological terms. However, these same clients are often paradoxically quick to note how quickly stress impacts everyone else but themselves. They reason that their personal, unmanaged stress is not related to their physiology, but is more of a concern of putting mind over matter. They’ve got it handled, or so they think. 

It’s always eye-opening to watch the tune change when a client sees their objective lab data reflecting what's truly going on “inside.” For example, when assessing daily cortisol levels at morning, noon, afternoon and night — just seeing the values on paper often helps to quantify an otherwise subjective concept. I’m a big fan of tracking both subjective and objective data over time. The objective data is beneficial because you can't argue with it. It is what it is. I’ve seen some of my most stressed out, busy and responsibility-juggling clients turn a new leaf the minute they saw their lab results in black and white. Watching someone who is otherwise harried and overwhelmed finally stop to pause, reflect, and just "be" is as rewarding of a transformation as a change in weight, physical ability, and body composition. (And in some cases, even more so.)
Heightening awareness of your stress levels is the first step in the right direction. While it may sometimes sound alluring, changing all your personal circumstances to align with a carefree life may not be possible. To take the next step in your healthy way of life journey, start with our three favorite tips: rest, recover, and test.

Have questions? Curious about cortisol testing? Interested in sharing your favorite stress management approach? Reach out to us at any time at — we’d love to hear from you!

In health, Samantha McKinney – Life Time Lab Testing Program Manager

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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