How Stress is Preventing Your Fat Loss

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Your daily stresses can slow down your fat loss.

When I start working with an online coaching client, I spend considerable time looking at their nutrition and exercise habits to try to assess where they’re going wrong and how they could improve. The next important area that I look at is lifestyle. And we don’t delve too far into a busy, successful person’s lifestyle without encountering STRESS.

In many cases, it’s hard to achieve a state of optimal fat loss unless the stress issue gets dealt with. Many people try to ignore stress and hope it will eventually sort itself out.

That doesn’t happen so stop waiting.

In the meantime, let’s look at what stress is doing to you.

Effects of Stress

Chronic stress tends to increase the amount of circulating cortisol in your system. Cortisol is known as the “stress hormone” and a certain amount is needed. Ideally, cortisol levels are highest in the morning (this provides energy) and taper off towards the evening as you prepare for sleep. This type of cortisol rhythm will be allow you to burn fat through activity early in the day or during exercise and then recover in the evening.

Here’s the problem: when stress is chronic, cortisol levels stay excessively high throughout the day. Cortisol causes your body to store more fat, and preferentially stores that fat in the abdominal area. So if you’re under a lot of stress your belly is likely to show it.

Stress Eating

When you’re facing excessive stress, it’s more difficult to make sensible decisions when it comes to food. You know you should have wild salmon and vegetables, but you’re anxious and stressed out so you reach for a chocolate chip muffin instead.

We’ve all been there.

It’s difficult to make the right choices when you’re overwhelmed. Anxiety can also make you more likely to eat the wrong foods. If you learn to control your stress levels with something besides food, you’ll benefit from additional fat loss.

Stress Reduction Strategies

I wish there was a simple answer to stress, but it’s often a very individual and complicated process. Part of the problem is that most people tend to ignore stress reduction strategies and keep running around looking for novel and exciting nutrition and exercise programs.

The basics of stress reduction lay the foundation for your daily life, and the success of any fitness and nutrition program that you embark on.

Here they are:

1) Sleep More 

Most people aren’t getting the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep a night. That’s a good place to start with your stress relief strategy. Make the time. Skip some of that Internet or TV time. Make sleep a priority.

It can be difficult to get enough sleep for another reason as well. The chronically high cortisol levels caused by stress can interfere with the production of melatonin, the sleep hormone. So you’ve set up a vicious cycle where even if you’re getting enough sleep you aren’t getting good quality sleep. This reduces your energy levels, recovery from exercise, and your ability to cope with – you guessed it – stress.

Break the cycle by making reducing your stress levels a priority. They affect everything else in your life so you ignore stress at your peril.

2) Get Ready for Sleep

It takes time to wind down before bedtime. If you’ve ever lay awake in bed thinking about that project you have to do tomorrow or the meeting you have in the morning then you know what I’m talking about. You need time to decompress, at least 30 minutes and preferably an hour.

Shutting down electronic devices and dimming the lights an hour before bed can also be helpful. Bright light interferes with your production of melatonin, which you already know is essential to a restful night’s sleep. The darker your room, the better. Invest in some blackout curtains and get rid of any glowing lights (like clocks).

Keep in mind that caffeine can also interfere with your sleep. If you struggle with getting to sleep, try cutting down on your caffeine consumption. If you can keep your caffeine consumption to before noon – even better.

More sleep means less stress and that means you’ll be able to optimize your fat burning capabilities.

3) Exercise

You know how you sometimes feel too stressed out to squeeze in a workout? Well that’s another one of those vicious cycles that you need to pull yourself out of. Exercise helps you cope with stress.

Although weight training is the preferred choice for building a great physique, any kind of exercise (particularly outdoors) can be a great stress reliever. Playing sports, or just running around with your kids, will help keep your stress levels under control.

Being physically active on a daily basis is important too. Move around as much as you can during the day. Step away from your desk and move around throughout your workday.

4) Meditate

No matter how many times I recommend this one, it always seems to get skipped. Many people see meditation as something they’d “like to do when they get a chance”, but they never seem to get a chance.

There’s an old Zen saying that goes something like this:

“If you’re too busy to meditate for an hour an day, meditate for two hours.”

It’s usually the people who need it the most that tend to skip this practice, no matter how beneficial. This isn’t some hocus-pocus quackery either, meditation has been scientifically researched to improve sleep, reduce stress, and increase relaxation.

Don’t worry about doing an hour (or even two!), start with 5-10 minutes every day. Most studies look for improvements after 6-8 weeks, but you’ll probably feel the relaxation benefits much sooner.

Don’t worry about doing anything special. Just sit somewhere quiet for 5-10 minutes and focus only on your breathing. It’s really that simple.

Be Less Stressed

Hopefully you’re now convinced that dealing with the stress in your life can be an effective way of finally getting the fat loss results you want. It’s easy to keep searching for new nutrition strategies or more challenging workouts, but harder to look yourself in the eye and admit that you’re stressed. Make the time to de-stress and you may finally discover the fat loss success you’ve been struggling with.

Ivana Chapman


Marniemi, J. et al. Visceral fat and psychosocial stress in identical twins discordant for obesity. J Intern Med. 2002 Jan;251(1):35-43.

Aschbacher, K. et al. Chronic stress increases vulnerability to diet-related abdominal fat, oxidative stress, and metabolic risk. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2014 Aug; 46: 14–22.

Derk Jan-Dijk, et al. Amplitude reduction and phase shifts of melatonin, cortisol and other circadian rhythms after a gradual advance of sleep and light exposure in humans. PLoS One. 2012; 7(2): e30037.

Ong, J.C. et al. A randomized controlled trial of mindfulness meditation for chronic insomnia. Sleep. 2014 Sep 1; 37(9): 1553–1563.

Keyworth, C. et al. A mixed-methods pilot study of acceptability and effectiveness of a brief meditation and mindfulness intervention for people with diabetes and coronary heart disease. Behav Med. 2014 Apr; 40(2): 53–64.

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Ivana Chapman

Ivana Chapman

Ivana Chapman BSc BA CSCS is a Canadian fitness and nutrition coach, happy wife, and mom to an energetic 8-year-old boy. She is a YouTuber, writer, published fitness model, speaker, 3rd Dan black belt in Shotokan Karate, former World Cup Karate Champion, one-time marathoner, and CBBF National level Natural Bikini competitor. She loves weight training and chocolate, not always in that order of preference.
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