Your Stress and Your Belly Fat

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(Courtesy photo by 8th Army)

Have you found those last few pounds of fat around your midsection tough to lose even when you feel you’re doing all the right things with your fitness and nutrition? Well, you are not alone.

Many of us have trouble with the last strongholds of body fat, and removing it requires a perfect balance of work, nutrition and rest. The truth is, sometimes we work too hard, under-recover, and, combined with daily life and work stress, we wind up burning the candle at both ends.

Over time, this increases our stress hormone cortisol. Failing to metabolize the rush of stress hormones naturally can interfere fat loss around the middle.

Quote of the Day: “There is virtue in work and there is virtue in rest. Use both and overlook neither.” - Alan Cohen (#dailycalm)

Our nervous system has two main speeds: Fight or Flight response (high stress) and Rest and Digest response (low stress). These are the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems respectively. Our goal is to actively pursue recovery and engage the parasympathetic side of our nervous system frequently throughout the day to create the balance we need to naturally deal with stress and the hormonal response to stress.

Stress bombards us daily from the moment we wake up through our movements, our thoughts and even in our sleep. Our life choices from what we eat, how we commute to work, our job, our family life, our workouts and how we eat and sleep all affect the amount of stress we have in our body at any point of the day.

If this stress is high, you can get a stress hormone cortisol test from your doctor. You will experience many of the following symptoms (according to Society of Endocrinology):

  • Rapid weight gain mainly in the face, chest and abdomen
  • A flushed and round face
  • High blood pressure
  • Skin changes (bruises and purple stretch marks)
  • Muscle weakness
  • Mood swings
  • Increased thirst and frequency of urination
  • Lack of sex drive

Number one on the list is a stubborn belly fat is tough to lose unless you take measures to actually reduce your stress levels -- and that means all stress. This does not mean you need a long vacation as you can do things everyday to balance out your nervous system and actually metabolize stress naturally. Here are some ways to not just avoid higher stress levels, but also lower them through specific daily habits.

Avoid This and Do That

Tackle stressful thoughts. Avoid thinking too much of the past and worrying about the future. If you find yourself having regrets of things done in the past and worrying too much about what is happening in the future, the combination or either one can increase mental and emotional stress, just by thinking.

Practice instead dealing with these intrusive thoughts by redirecting your thought to the present. Touching something coarse with your fingers or feet can bring you back to the here and now and help you avoid long periods of regret and anxiety.

You can produce stress hormones with just your thoughts. Mental and emotional stress is real and produces a powerful physical response. Learn breathing skills and other coping skills to help. If you need more help with this, talk to a counselor or mental health professional. Reducing stress starts with your brain not interfering with your day and especially your sleep.

Control your food. Avoid highly caffeinated and sugary foods. Both can wreak havoc on the body’s endocrine system. Not only will this fuel be sub-par, the hormonal response to what you put into your mouth each day can lead to higher cortisol levels. Avoid dehydration and not eating enough food as that also stresses the body and produces a stress response.

Try not to drink caffeine after noon and replace any caffeinated drink with water. Caffeine can increase cortisol levels and so can dehydration.

Instead, focus on consuming good foods and drinks. Foods rich in amino acids, anti-oxidants, omega-3 oils and probiotics will help you recover from stress, rest and digest better. Drink more water, about 80 to 120 ounces a day. Personally, I just go for the gallon a day by keeping a jug with me all day.

Natural foods like fruits, vegetables, lean meats, plant or egg protein, nuts and berries are perfect additions to your daily eating to help you battle the effects of stress.

Control your breathing. Avoid short, shallow breaths from the top of the lungs. Avoid mouth breathing as well.

Focus instead on deep inhales in through the nose, and full exhales through the mouth. Work on your timing. I personally like box breathing: 4 seconds inhale, 4 second hold, 4 second exhale, 4 second hold. Any deep inhale that fully inflates the lungs (deep to the bottom of lungs) and full, prolonged exhales will help you in the moment reduce stress levels and heart rate, relaxing you. Master breathing as it is the key to success. Try yoga, meditation, or just walking in a 4-step inhale, 4-step exhale breathing rhythm.

Manage your exercise. If you’re having high stress day at work, family issues or other mental or emotional stress, the last thing you need to do is do a hardcore workout that now stresses you out physically. You will know you are doing this if you are working out like crazy and still cannot lose the belly fat.

Sprinting, heavy lifting, high repetitions, high miles and high intensity all have their place in training, but sometimes all you need is an easy cycle to see some of the results that have been eluding you regardless of how hard you are working.

Instead, consider a cycle of a few weeks of easier workouts with lots of mobility, breathing, non-impact cardio, light weights and lower repetitions. All you need is an easy cardio day of walking, easy bike, swim or other activity and you are done. But throughout the day, go for a walk for 10 minutes, focus on breathing especially when you notice stress getting higher.

Fix your sleep. Avoid poor sleep hygiene that leads to disrupted sleep and fails to provide restorative sleep. Too much caffeine in the afternoon and evening, late high-intensity workouts, too much food at dinner or snack time, too much TV or phone time prior to bed are many things you have to avoid to get a better night’s sleep.

Instead, get in a sleep and bedtime ritual as you do with your kids when they are learning to sleep. Bath, pajamas, turn off TV, play easy music, read for a few minutes and even set an alarm each night for when it is time to start this process.

Sleep is our number one recovery tool. Get good at it as it is most likely a major culprit in your higher stress levels.

Related Articles to help you reduce stress and hopefully those last few pounds of belly fat.

Five More Ways to Reduce Stress

Combating Stress with Fitness

Sleep - #1 Stress Recovery Tool

Stress Can Become a Perfect Storm

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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