You’ve been doing everything right: exercising regularly, eliminating processed foods from your diet, and trying hard to eat more fruits and vegetables. But for some reason, you’re just not seeing the results you had in mind.
What gives? Eating well and exercising regularly have long been seen as the keys to a healthy lifestyle, but more recent research shows that a far sneakier emotion—stress—might play a larger role than previously believed. Read on to learn more about how stress could be sabotaging your health, and what you can do to stop it from impacting your hard work.
Enemy of Skin and Waistlines Everywhere
In January of 2017, 80% of Americans reported experiencing at least one symptom of stress in the past month. For most people, the question isn’t whether or not you experience stress, but rather how much and how often. Stress can be a healthy biological response to difficult situations, but when it’s present all the time, it delivers serious physical and emotional effects.
When you’re stressed, you’re far more likely to feel tired and irritable, which could lead you to engage in unhealthy coping strategies, like overeating. If you’re having a hard time avoiding unhealthy snacks around midday, or if you arrive home from work exhausted and unable to motivate yourself to go to the gym, it may be stress—not a bad attitude or lack of willpower—that’s to blame.
Further, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, chronic stress can leave you more susceptible to the flu and colds, as well as headaches and insomnia—a recipe for skipping workouts and turning to comfort food to feel better. Trying to stick to newer, healthier habits when you’re not feeling 100% is a lot to ask for anyone. Start with these strategies if you feel like you need to make a change.
1. Exercise Mindfully
If your goals include being more physically fit, try incorporating a yoga or tai chi class into your weekly fitness schedule. Not only will the activities help with strength, balance, and flexibility, they’ll also create a space for you to focus on breathing and concentration. As you flow from pose to pose, you’ll gain body awareness and be encouraged to empty your mind. Additionally, the change in routine may jump-start your weight loss goals. Both yoga and tai chi burn over 150 calories per hour.
Best of all, you don’t have to practice every day to experience the benefits. A recent study found that yoga lowered psychological distress among women in Australia, even when practiced as seldom as once a week. The small study joins a growing body of research that hopes to establish definitive evidence of yoga’s long suspected health benefits.
2. Get More Sleep
The effects of sleep deprivation can actually look a lot like those of chronic stress, so if you aren’t getting the recommended seven to nine hours each night, listen up. According to the National Sleep Foundation, chronic inadequate sleep can cause your body to produce more stress hormones that it normally would. The presence of these hormones in excess can cause your body to enter into a catabolic state, during which you break down muscle and store fat cells. Furthermore, you’ll notice your energy levels dip dramatically. If you’re looking for healthy results and not seeing them, you could be sabotaging your own efforts by not getting enough sleep.
3. Find the Source and Make a Change
The source of your stress might seem like a no-brainer sometimes, but when stress comes from multiple sources or slowly builds up over time, it can be harder to track. If you can’t name the source of your stress, take some time to sit down and reflect on what’s changed in your life over the past few months, or what you might be missing. Understanding where stress is coming from allows you to more easily recognize when it’s affecting you, and come up with a plan to manage it.
4. Spend Time in Nature
A trip to the beach, a backyard, the park around the corner: however you’re able to incorporate nature into your life, do so. With a fledgling body of research behind it that’s growing by the day, nature is finally enjoying scientific backing as an antidote to stress. Proving what lovers of the outdoors have known for a long time, a Stanford University study recently found that “neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a brain region active during rumination—repetitive thought focused on negative emotions—decreased among participants who walked in nature versus those who walked in an urban environment.”
The results don’t end there. A similar study at Chiba University in Japan observed a 16% decrease in cortisol, the hormone associated with stress, after participants spent just 15 minutes walking in the forest. Take your regular gym workout outdoors once a week, and you could see changes in both your mood and waistline.
In an increasingly urban, connected world, stress isn’t going anywhere soon. However, with a few simple strategies, you can change the way you deal with stress—and how much of an effect it has on your goals—to lead a healthier life.
Honestly Fitness is a health and fitness blog dedicated to helping others live their healthiest, happiest lives. Passionate about helping others, Honestly Fitness enjoys undertaking extensive research in order to communicate easy to understand, and actionable, health advice.