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Published on October 12, 2016 by Contributing Author
Traditionally, the biggest issue that people have had with exercise is not getting enough. If you’re new to the fitness scene, you may not be familiar with the latest industry boogeyman: overtraining. Simply put, there’s a growing concern that people may be pushing their bodies to the limit too often.
Let’s get one thing straight: the ‘overtraining syndrome’ is definitely an issue--just not for you and me. Unless you’re exercising as frequently and intensely as a professional athlete, you’re almost certainly in the clear.
Overtraining worries people because it can limit progress, despite their best efforts.
However, the chances of you being one of the rare few that are pushing their bodies to the breaking point day after day is unlikely. Rather, you’re more likely to deal with the issue of poor recovery, and one of the biggest factors than can impact your recovery is stress, something that 77% of American adults report impacting their physical well-being.
Now, we know what you’re thinking: “Really? Stress is what’s going to keep me from getting a six pack?” Forget about getting a six pack--stress can make it difficult to even enjoy the benefits of exercise at all!
That’s because stress is more than just a feeling. Daily stress can have a definitive impact on your overall health because it triggers the release of cortisol, typically known as the ‘stress hormone’.
Now, temporary, small increases in your cortisol levels can have a positive, short-term effect on your response to stress. As Michigan State University Social-Emotional Health Educator Gail Innis put it, “we often gain a quick burst of energy, heightened memory and a lowered sensitivity to pain”.
So, how exactly does this ‘stress hormone’ affect your fitness directly? Well, cortisol can have a massive effect on your body fat and muscle development. Today, we intend to demystify cortisol and how it can stand between you and your ideal body composition. We’re going to dive into all the data and reveal, once and for all, just how damaging a high stress level can be.
Cortisol and Body Composition
To truly understand how cortisol can affect your body composition, we first need to look at what cortisol levels do to the different components of the body. To keep things simple, we’ll be using the 2 Component (2C) model, which consists of Lean Body Mass and Fat Mass.
Lean Body Mass
Our first order of business is seeing how cortisol affects your Lean Body Mass (more specifically, your muscles and muscular development). As far back as 1964, researchers have suggested that cortisol hampers your body’s protein synthesis. Protein synthesis = development of new muscle.
More recently, researchers mimicked a stressed state in healthy test subjects by adding cortisol to their systems via IV and oral tablets. They found that cortisol and inactivity were linked with loss of Lean Body Mass and worsened body composition. While inactivity can have this effect alone, the catabolic effect of cortisol seemed to play a significant role in the loss of muscle.
While we may not understand everything about cortisol yet, we’ve certainly been able to pinpoint the effect that chronic stress can have on muscle recovery.
To get to the root of the issue, a study published in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research in 2014 was conducted to determine the relationship between stress and muscular recovery. Over the course of a 4-day period, the subjects’ perceived energy, fatigue and soreness levels were measured after a bout of strenuous resistance exercise.
Over time, perceived stress can end up wearing away at both your mental and physical health. What’s worse, it doesn’t take weeks or months to start seeing the effects. It only took 4 days for researchers to notice a statistically significant impact on perceived energy, fatigue and soreness levels.
And it’s not just in our imaginations either. The results from the study also showed that over time, stress (whether it originates from a life event or perception) negatively influenced the recovery of muscular function after exercise.
For the record, it’s perfectly normal to experience mild stress on a regular basis. Whether you’re a stay-at-home mom or a busy college student, stress is just part of being human. The real issue here is chronic stress.
In a culture where chronic stress seems to be something nearly everyone experiences (when was the last time you heard someone say “I’ve just got so much free time”?), it’s vital that we take a look at the science and realize just how much damage stress can actually cause. It’s official: Our thoughts and state of mind can end up affecting our physical health.
Of course, that’s what we found just from looking at Lean Body Mass. Our analysis wouldn’t be complete without a look at how cortisol affects Fat Mass.
Some limited insights into the role of cortisol on body fat can be gleaned from animal studies. One such study, a 2009 study conducted by the Wake Forest University School of Medicine, studied the effects of stress deriving from social settings and the accumulation of central body fat on a group of female primates.
Just as in human groups, the animals organized themselves into a dominant and subordinate hierarchy system. As you might imagine, the less powerful subordinates experienced more harassment, more stress, and - you guessed it - greater proportions of body fat, suggesting a link between greater stress and increased visceral fat - the type of that can have extremely damaging effects on your body.
But that’s just one study, and an animal study at that. In order to be sure that stress is to blame for increases in body fat, we need to dig deeper.
In 2000, University of California’s Health Psychology Program conducted a study designed to assess whether women with central fat distribution displayed consistently heightened cortisol reactivity when presented with stressful situations.
What the study concluded was that stress-induced cortisol secretion could contribute to an increase in Fat Mass. Interestingly, when comparing subjects with greater fat content vs. leaner subjects, they found that the leaner subjects were more at risk than the subjects with greater body fat percentages.
The implication of this study suggests a fat gain positive feedback loop could occur if left unchecked: more stress -> more cortisol ->more body fat -> more stress...
This is where the danger of stress starts to become apparent. It’s not that it hinders one specific aspect of your overall fitness development-- it impacts every aspect of it. Building muscle and losing fat becomes harder while under stress, while gaining fat becomes easier than ever before. Thus, simply feeling stressed out can have a serious effect on your body.
And that’s not the worst of it. Sure, there’s plenty of data that shows how stress makes it harder to reduce body fat and easier for your body to accumulate it. But there’s just as much concern in the fitness community that elevated stress levels can ruin one of the cornerstones of your fitness regimen: your diet.
Stress, Dieting and Sleep Loss
A study conducted in 2016 by the Health Care Department or the Metropolitan Autonomous University was designed to observe whether there is a relationship between obesity, depression and emotional eating. Depressive symptoms have often been associated with obesity, and the study ventured to see what the connection was between emotional eating and weight gain.
After examining the results of over 1,000 subjects and their emotional eating habits, the data suggested that depression (stress)-related emotional eating can have a statistically significant impact on obesity and that emotion management may prove effective in obesity prevention.
Stress is hard enough to handle in small doses, but chronic stress can have complex, detrimental effects on your emotional health (which in turn, ends up influencing your overall health). While a fitness regimen will definitely have a positive impact on your muscular development and fat loss, maintaining a proper diet is the foundation of any effective training plan.
Your diet isn’t the only thing you need to be worried about wrecking either. The average adult barely gets enough sleep as it is, with about a third of adults reporting less than 6 hours of sleep every night. The idea of getting enough sleep every night might seem laughable to some (some people are already saying “I barely have enough time to go to the gym!”), but sleep loss is no joke.
Consider the findings of a study conducted in 1997 by the University of Chicago’s Department of Medicine. The expressed purpose of the study was to determine the relationship between sleep loss and cortisol levels.
Long story short, the study concluded that when your body doesn’t get enough sleep, your cortisol levels can rise anywhere from 37-45%, which according to researchers can “accelerate the development of metabolic and cognitive consequences of glucocorticoid excess.”
Translation? The increased cortisol levels can seriously threaten your muscle development (never mind the reduced GH and testosterone levels caused by your lack of sleep) and make it that much harder to reach your fitness goals. Even partial sleep loss is enough to raise your cortisol levels and bring on the entire host of problems that comes along with it.
Understanding and Managing Stress
Once you’ve decided to embark on your fitness journey, you need to keep in mind that building muscle and losing fat is about so much more than just ‘hitting the gym’. Maintaining a proper diet and getting enough sleep every night aren’t luxuries--they’re necessities if you expect to make meaningful progress.
The fact that chronically elevated stress levels have a negative effect on the human body is hardly a revelation these days. Stress can damage everything from your emotional state to your immune system--this has been well-established.
Fortunately, there are plenty of tools you can utilize to handle the stress of daily life. Making sure you get enough sleep is crucial to managing your stress levels. Practices like meditation and yoga have also been known to help.
The key is to make sure you’re doing something about managing your stress. If you’re not careful, cortisol can end up being one of the biggest barriers between you and your fitness goals.
The more we study cortisol and try to understand how it specifically affects the human body, the more we realize that it might be one of the underlying issues holding us back in the pursuit of a healthier, happier life.
Don’t let stress hold you back!
Brian Leguizamon is a content marketing specialist. Brian has worked with Shopify, Gigster and a bunch of startups you've never heard of. When he's not working, you'll find him at his local gym, waiting for the squat rack to open upTagged: Body Composition › Health/Fitness ›