We all seem to have that one friend - or at least know someone - who falls into step with a fitness program seemingly without too much hassle, and before we know it has attained the goals we’ve been working for years to reach but keep falling short of. Why? Why is it that some people seem to find the formula for great results and put it into practice without a second thought while the rest of us seem to struggle and plateau?
The answer it seems comes down to the hidden lifestyle variables that aren't easy to pin down and write into an exercise program or diet plan, something I've come to think of as an ‘energy in/energy out’ equation that takes into account not just calories, or even micronutrients and optimal nutrition, but the collective energy tax of mental and emotional stress that has very real physiological effects on the body.
During recent years the stress hormone, cortisol, has been spoken about frequently in relation to health and fitness goals. In short, cortisol is released in response to a perceived threat or stress and primes our bodies to become even more effective at producing energy - breaking down proteins to be converted to glucose is just one of the effects of elevated cortisol levels. Cortisol raises our blood glucose, lowers insulin production, and harvests valuable protein to be used as an energy source. Whether it be weight loss or muscle gain you're working on, this isn't great news.
So coming back to our magic people who seem to be the poster children for health and fitness goals; in most cases with extraordinarily great results, a person's energy in/energy out equation when it comes to stress and emotional management is well balanced. They might be under a certain amount of pressure and have stresses in their lives like anyone else, however, their coping mechanisms and how they approach challenges are almost always well developed. Things just never seem to push them to a point of being what some of us would call “highly stressed”. Substances like caffeine and alcohol might still be present in their weekly diets, but present at an amount that is still offset by the ‘energy in’ side of their equation - sleep, hydration, gut health, optimal intake of nutrient-dense foods, laughter (yes, laughter), relaxation, meditation, passion and purpose in their professional lives, and time with loved ones.
Aside from the physiology of a consistently stressed individual, it is consistency in constructive areas that suffer most from an energy imbalance. Consistency is something that is often hard to maintain for those of us who live on the razor's edge when it comes to balancing work, stress and recovery. A pattern I see all too often amongst driven, results-focused people, is an “all or nothing” type approach for a period of 4, 8, or even 12 weeks of intense work, followed by a crash that lasts anywhere between 1 and 4 weeks. These crashes are often severe enough to put a serious dent in our progress. The reward: effort ratio of this pattern is enough to leave anyone feeling like they’ve just been pushed down a steep hill in a wooden barrel filled with bowling balls made of actual sadness.
But enough of the news about what could be going wrong for you! Here are a few areas to play with that can help get you on a more direct track to your health and fitness goals!
When it comes to stress, have a look at your own energy in/energy out equation and ask yourself questions like “How many things am I trying to juggle at the same time right now?”, and “Is this period of high stress going to end with the completion of a task or project?”. If the answer is “So many things I can’t recall all of them off the top of my head.” and “Maybe in a few years I’ll get some breathing space.” it might be time to do some life streamlining! Sometimes when we have a number of things that are important to us we have to become quite calloused and very clear when it comes to taking on extra responsibilities. We usually want to say “yes, I can do that for you.” when something is asked of us at home, at work, or by a friend, but before saying “Yes.”, ask yourself “Will agreeing to this detract from the energy I have to give my top priorities what they require to be a success?”
Even with great attention being paid to prioritising and streamlining, it’s natural to go through times when things feel overwhelming. This is when we’re most likely to give in to stress eating or emotional eating, fire up our caffeine intake, use alcohol to wind down, and neglect self-care in the name of powering through. It is during these times however that it is most important to feed your body what it needs to handle what you're asking of it. This means, maintenance of good nutrition, hydration, and stress management techniques such as meditation and diaphragmatic breathing to calm your nervous system. Create a checklist for yourself - a few simple self-care habits that you do every day, no matter what, to offset stress and stay on track to your goals. Remember, when you're in good condition, are well rested, and happy, you're going to think clearer, make better decisions, and have more energy to take care of the people and work most important to you!
Meditation is an invaluable skill to have in the toolbox when it comes to stress management. It has been shown to lower cortisol, and contribute to healthy levels of dopamine and serotonin, the happiness hormones. Even as little as two five minute sessions of mediation per day can give you the boost you need to stay on top of things in times of high activity.
Regulate intensities of workouts
Not even pro athletes train as hard as they can, every day, all the time, forever. Aim for constructive goal-oriented workouts rather than just to be exhausted after every session, and cycle through periods of maximal effort, moderate effort, and deload/recovery. Exercise is a stress on the body like anything else, so it’s important to have customised workout plans that take into account what your life outside the gym is asking of you.
Watch your thoughts
When it comes to things happening in our lives that get under our skin, ask yourself; is it the event that's bothering you, or what you’re thinking about the event that’s bothering you? Often even when dealing with something that is unequivocally not ideal, it's not the event or situation that bothers us as much as where our mind goes in relation to the situation. For example, someone might say something that we interpret as disrespectful or a personal shot at us. Our minds pull on that thread, create accompanying stories based often on our own fears or insecurities in regards to what was said or done, and before we know it our entire emotional state has shifted negatively, which in turn can fuel self-fulfilling prophecies regarding how we are treated by the world around us. Through thought alone, we have an incredible capacity to turn something that otherwise may have been a non-event or mild inconvenience into something deeply personal and infuriating. This is where getting distance from our own thoughts can be extremely useful. Imagine your thoughts not as your own, but as a kind of voice that you observe as a third party. If your thoughts and thought processes where an entirely separate person to you, what kind of person would they be? Would you take advice from them?
Our thoughts are like an opinionated friend with no verbal filter who constantly talks at us, often saying the least constructive things possible and going to worst case scenarios. Meditation, breath awareness, and actively practising mindfulness are all great strategies to get you out of your head and into the present moment. And if none of those strategies really resonate with you, the next time your mind starts bothering you with speculation and worry that’s doing nothing but bring you down, you can say “I’m not interested in that. Show me something fun or constructive.” Remember your mind is your employee, not your employer!
Do your best to get 7 - 8 hours per night and be in bed asleep by 11:00pm. Shut off all electronic screens or wear blue light filtering glasses from 8:30pm, and make your bedroom as dark as possible by getting rid of or covering any LED lights or windows that let streetlight in. The amount of sleep we’re getting can affect appetite and ability to recover effectively from exercise. Leptin and ghrelin - hormones responsible for appetite - have been found to be negatively affected by sleep deprivation and irregular sleep. Most of us have some degree of subtle chronic sleep deprivation and are so accustomed to it that it has become “normal”. Craving carbohydrates to the point where it’s driving you a bit mad? Irregular or disrupted sleep may be to blame. Growth hormones (GH) are also regulated during sleep. Bare in mind GH is one of the primary drivers for repair and recovery in the body so even if gaining lean muscle isn't a priority for you, healthy skin and all things that come under the headline of “anti-ageing” have fingers in the GH pie!
Marcus is a Certified Nutrition and NLP Coach specialising in anxiety management and disordered eating. He is the co-founder of MK Coaching, and the co-creator of online Nutrition and Wellness Course, Reinvention.
watch this space for Marcus' next seminar!