Originally written for The Washington Post, October 6th, 2016
Wake up before sunrise to go running. Purposefully avoid breakfast or a snack in the hope of saving calories. Assume that “more intense” is always better, whether it be in a workout or an eating plan.
All this effort and often no results.
Many of us are struggling and frustrated that our bodies are not doing what we want. We’re working hard at eating right and exercising, and we don’t know why the number on the scale doesn’t reflect our efforts. Why is that?
The answer could be stress.
What we don’t always realize is that the intricate complexities of our bodies are there to create simplicity. Although there are billions of reactions and biochemical functions going on at any moment, fundamentally the body wants to know the answer to one simple question: Are we stressed or are we safe?
If our bodies think we are safe, our parasympathetic nervous system is at work. This is our “rest and digest” response. Imagine sitting in a chair and taking some nice deep breaths. Your PNS is hard at work getting you to rest by lowering blood pressure, heart rate and lung effort. In addition, all organs involved in digestion and detoxification are stimulated. This is the time your metabolism will burn fat and you will lose weight.
If we are stressed, our sympathetic nervous system or “flight or fight” response is working. If our body goes on alert, the SNS kicks in and does the opposite of the PNS. Stress hormones cause heart rate, breath rate and blood pressure to increase. Meanwhile, all other systems for daily life and preventive health — such as digestion, immune response and detoxification — slow down, because they are not a priority when we are in danger. Our body will hold onto fat during this time. Why? Fat will keep us warm and is great for storing energy if we are truly in trouble.
Learn to manage stress so your nervous system works in your favor. Stress happens and always will. Stress-management techniques will make your body work metabolically for rather than against you.
• Time your meals: Eat within an hour of waking and every three to four hours thereafter. That’s a guaranteed way to lower the stress response. Eat a balanced plate of protein, carbohydrates and fat regularly throughout the day to fuel your body and give it time to rest, digest and rejuvenate.
• Eat clean: Avoid hyper-processed foods that lack nutrients and will trigger more cravings. Eat real food that will satiate and fuel you.
• Hydrate: We often drink caffeine and alcohol when stressed, and don’t consider water as a tool to lower stress. If the body is dehydrated, it will think it is in danger. Stay hydrated throughout the day.
• Take five breaths: If your days are nonstop and stress seems to be everywhere, take 30 seconds for five good breaths at least once a day. If you can do it a few times a day (set alarms on your phone to remind you), even better.
• Exercise in a way that gives you what you need: If you are living in a stressed state and running on empty, a high-intensity interval workout is going to elevate your stress rather than decrease it. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being sleeping and 10 being sprinting, find exercise between 5 and 7. Go for a walk, hike, yoga class, Pilates session, spinning class or weight-room session, but slow it down rather than speeding it up.
• Sleep: Please sleep. Seven to eight hours is ideal. Slow down earlier; create a nighttime ritual to help fall asleep sooner; get the room to a cool 68 degrees; use white noise and blackout curtains; take the TV and tech devices out of the bedroom; enjoy soft, cozy sheets, a nice candle or whatever you need to make it happen. Give your body time to recover.
It really is this simple, although putting this in place takes some time. Slow down to see results. Manage stress to achieve your goals.