Stress is basically no one’s BFF. Causing fatigue, irritability, headaches, social withdrawal, and changes in appetite, it throws us for a loop both physically and emotionally until the task that is putting excess pressure on us is done (which, if you’ve seen any of our to-do lists lately, will happen never).
You might find yourself mindlessly snacking on an entire box of cookies as you work up to a deadline, or indulging in one too many glasses of wine to ease the tension—neither will be giving your waistline any high fives.
This surge of hunger and sudden desire for sugary, fat-filled comfort foods should not be a complete surprise. Your brain goes into fight-or-flight mode at the hint of a threat, preparing you to handle it by making you feel alert and ready to work.
Initially, this adrenaline boost helps you feel less hungry as blood flows away from your internal organs and to your large muscles so you’re ready to rumble (or, you know, pay a month’s worth of bills). However, once the effects of adrenaline wear off, the “stress hormone” cortisol is released and declares that your body needs to replenish its food supply, which you eagerly oblige with an entire family-size bag of chips.
Oh don’t worry, it gets better: the accumulation of cortisol over time—such as during Finals Week, leading up to an important presentation, rehearsing for a big performance, or wondering how on Earth you’re going to pay next month’s rent—has been proven to slow down your metabolism and burn fewer calories, making it harder to get rid of the extra softness around your belly once the subject of your stress has come and gone.
With all of the worries we juggle on a day-to-day basis, it may seem like our bodies are working against us in our quest to have a year-round hot body, but good news! You can cross “Become a Bombshell” off of your list after all. Even if you can’t totally eliminate the causes of your stress, you can make small changes to offset its effects.
The caffeine in a cup of coffee is not going to help you out if you’re already wired on anxiety. If you really need a boost to get you through your day, give green tea or ginger tea a try, which will keep you alert without feeling overly jittery. At night, brew a warm mug of chamomile tea, which helps to relax you gently and naturally, also acting as a sleeping aid.
If you can see stress coming and are looking to keep it from ruining your hard work, stage a preemptive strike by adjusting your serving sizes. Cutting calories without sacrificing the amount of food on your plate is surprisingly simple, and really comes down to supplementing your healthy-but-dense gains with water-rich, fiber-full vegetables. Cut your portion of quinoa in half and fill the rest in with steamed asparagus or black beans, or mix your brown rice with lightly sautéed spinach. The volume of food is the same, but you could cut your calorie count by nearly 100, and you’re still on track to meet your health goals without some pesky hassle getting in the way.
Research has proven that some foods are capable of raising your metabolic rate, and while the effects aren’t extreme, they may balance out some tension-induced metabolism slumps. Hot peppers, especially cayenne, can be sprinkled on meat, veggies, soups, and anything else your tongue can handle to burn some extra calories that might be slacking in the face of stress. Hot peppers get extra credit for also having shown to fight off colds and lower cholesterol.
Get in the habit of going on a brisk 10-15 minute walk after all meals. A recent study found that establishing a routine of brief activity can help normalize blood sugar levels for up to three hours after eating. The simple act of breaking a period of sitting still and getting your blood pumping can shift your metabolism for the better. Enlist the help of a walking buddy to chat about something fun instead of whatever it is that’s been worrying you, or use the time to stroll alone and clear your head.
You’re probably reading this bit of advice like, “Seriously? I breathe every day. Constantly, in fact. Why aren’t you giving me something useful?!” First of all, please go drink your chamomile tea. Second, breathing normally as it pertains to easing stress is not the same as controlled breathing, which is the act of taking in relaxed, even breaths and slowly exhaling.
Focus on each breath and how deeply you can inhale through your nose before calmly expelling the air through your mouth. Take a step away from your work and practice controlled breathing for just a few minutes, and you’ll be amazed at how quickly it will help relieve muscle tension and evoke a more peaceful mindset.
It’s difficult to remove stress from our lives completely, but understanding how it affects our bodies, especially our waistlines, can keep it from being too detrimental to our fitness progress. Be aware of your hormones as well as your reactions to them when they go a little crazy, and do your best to set yourself up for success no matter what work, family, and life throws your way.
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