Stress plus sitting = easy fat storing…
There are so many known health issues related to constant stress…
I have previously talked about how much stress can impact our body’s ability to burn fat. Stress can have a HUGE negative hormonal impact on the body. Let’s define what things can stress the human body. First off, you have your day to day stresses: small, easily resolved issues that come up at work, traffic jams, a super busy day, etc. These are, for the most part, acute incidences that our body can handle quickly and we can continue on with our day.
However, these can easily turn into chronic stress. Chronic stress is things such as a bad relationship, financial problems, a very busy job/family life, over-exercising, never allowing yourself any time to relax and restore. With acute stress, our body releases bursts of cortisol, adrenalin and other stress hormones that help us with our fight or flight response. These are the hormones that help us swerve out of the way of a squirrel in the road or give us a big energy burst needed to complete an important project at work. This is healthy stress. This is stress that our body has evolved to handle. As long as we can resolve the stress in a timely manner and then allow our body to relax and rest (tap into our parasympathetic nervous system), then we should be fine.
So when does stress become a problem?
It becomes a problem when we are constantly exposed to it day in and day out, every single day, over and over again, like a broken record. When we constantly face stress that never goes away (bad relationship, constant problems at work, financial issues, too much exercise, not enough recovery time), our body has to constantly produce stress hormones. Unfortunately, our HPA axis, or the stress response part of our body, doesn't know the difference between being chased by a bear and a tight deadline at work. It releases the same stress hormones either way. This can be extremely detrimental to the body. When we have a constant production of cortisol, we are putting major stress on our body.
Cortisol + High Insulin = Fat Storage
When we are constantly producing cortisol and also have high insulin from eating things that we crave when stressed such as food that contains a lot of sugar and fat (think: tortilla chips, cookies, brownies–even the Paleo-approved kind), we are putting our body into SUPER FAT-STORAGE MODE. When you are stressed and eat high-insulin releasing foods, you are pretty much guaranteeing that your body will be storing fat all day long.
There’s more to it as well. One of cortisol’s roles is to increase blood sugar during fight or flight times. If we are constantly under stress (constantly in fight or flight mode) we will get a chronic release of cortisol which means constant bursts of unneeded blood sugar. No need to tap into fat as a fuel source if we are getting all of our energy from the blood sugar cortisol is providing. This is why stress can really sabotage anyone’s weight loss routine; even if you are trying to be in a caloric deficit and eating really clean.
Cortisol + insulin = fat storage? (this is the nerdy part, so if the science behind it all bores you, skip ahead!)
When cortisol (stress) and insulin (from eating sugary/starchy foods) are chronically high, they impact another hormone called lipoprotein lipase (LPL). LPL is a major hormone responsible for pulling fat into storage. That means that when you consume excess calories when LPL is high, you will be storing those calories as bodyfat. Here is the catch: we need SOME cortisol in order to activate another hormone called hormone sensitive lipase (HSL). HSL is a fat-burning hormone. HSL is activated when cortisol is at an appropriate level in our bodies. This means that acute stress (healthy stress) can actually help with fat burning while chronic stress (unhealthy stress) can put us into fat storage mode. This is how stress can most definitely impact our body’s ability to burn fat. I see this often here at my studio. A client hits a plateau and no matter what they try, they cannot start burning fat again until they get their cortisol levels and chronic stress under control, regardless of how much they exercise specifically for fat burning or how well they are eating.
Sitting too much only adds to the problem:
Several recent articles have posed headlines such as “Sitting is killing you” or “Are you sitting too much?” When we are in a state of high cortisol, high insulin and we sit all day at work or at home, we are severely hurting our body’s ability to burn fat even more than with just insulin and cortisol alone. Remember that hormone we mentioned above, LPL? The fat storing hormone that is activated when we have high insulin and high cortisol? Well, guess what? That hormone is also activated when we are sedentary. In one study, rats that were forced to sit around all day also caused LPL to become active. This means that by simply sitting too much, we activate LPL and put our bodies into fat storage mode. Interestingly, the simple act of standing was enough to reverse this effect.
What else can we do to reverse this effect?
Surprisingly, simple light activity like standing and easy walking several times throughout the day had a greater impact on LPL activity than actual exercise sessions. Do you know anyone who kicks butt at the gym several times per week but then sits the rest of the day and never sees body fat loss? Most likely it is LPL’s fault. Sure, this individual burns some fat during the workout and a bit afterwards. But too much sitting all but eliminates the fat burning that was stimulated during the workout. Dang it!!! There is an actual research term coined for these folks. They are called "active couch potatoes" and sadly, research is starting to show that these folks who get a short workout in but still sit around all day are no better off in terms of mortality than folks who just stay sedentary all the time.
Here are some simple suggestions to keep LPL at bay and allow your body to burn fat throughout the day:
1. Stand and work whenever possible. This could mean an actual stand-up desk or simply standing at your desk whenever possible (on the phone, when chatting with a coworker, etc)
2. Move more. Get up and walk throughout the day. Remember, the act of standing up was enough to reverse LPL’s action. Try not to sit more than 30 minutes at a time.
3. Get in more general movement during the day: tap your foot, dance in your chair to the song on the radio, stretch your arms overhead throughout the day. This may not have a calorie-burn effect but they will add up to impact LPL.
4. Walk!!! Leisure walking is probably the number 1 way to improve fat burning through its impact on LPL. Try to take a short walk on your work breaks. Aim for 30-60 minutes of walking throughout the day or more. Walking also reduces cortisol to a healthy level which will help withfat burning even more by activating HSL.
5. Breathe! Deep breathing has been shown to take us from a fight or flight state to a relaxed state which, in turn, lowers cortisol. Take 90 second breaks throughout the day to just breathe deeply. Try it at every red light you hit while you drive, whenever you are outside or even waiting in line at the grocery store. The more you do it, the better your body will respond.