Written by: Kevin Cann
The majority of us understand that it is important to exercise and eat well. However, knowing is only half of the battle. Implementing sustainable plans to help manage our weight as well as our life is still a struggle. According to the CDC, roughly 35% of Americans are obese. This equates to roughly 78.6 million people, and costs Americans roughly $150 billion a year. This is largely due to the increased cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, stroke, and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
All of these diseases are largely preventable. We know that exercise and eating more fruits and vegetables are good for our health. However, sustaining this positive behavior has become more and more difficult. Many of us neglect other areas of our lives which may lead us to making poor food choices and lacking the energy we need to habitually exercise. I am of the belief that the hyper palatability of processed foods, as well as our chronic stress levels, are at the forefront of causing us problems. In this article I want to focus on the latter, as too many of us neglect the importance of stress management on our health.
In my practice I always ask my clients what they do to actively manage their stress. The majority of the time I get an answer that goes like this “I exercise X number of days per week.” Exercise is an integral part of a healthy lifestyle, but is not a means of stress management. Under the right circumstances exercise can help boost our immune system and allow us to recover from the stress response more quickly.
However, if we overdo it with intensity, duration, and frequency we can run into problems. This is especially true if we are chronically stressed out. Exercise induces a response from our sympathetic nervous system. This is the part of the nervous system responsible for our “fight or flight” response. This is also true for sitting in traffic, worrying about financial issues, family troubles, job troubles, and anything else you can think of. What we need is an activity that initiates a response from our parasympathetic nervous system, our “rest and digest” nervous system.
One of my recommendations to clients to turn off the sympathetic nervous system and turn on the parasympathetic nervous system is through meditation. Meditation is actually a great way to help recover from workouts as well as increase our health. A combination of physical activity and meditation has been shown to improve heart rate, blood pressure, and lower cortisol levels (1). Increased cortisol is largely responsible for overtraining syndrome (2). With overtraining syndrome we develop negative mood, increased injury risk, and decreased performance. Some deep breathing right after a workout is a great way to initiate a response from the parasympathetic nervous system and start recovery immediately following a workout.
Another recommendation I make to clients to assist with the recovery process is magnesium supplementation. This can come via a pill, or a magnesium bath. What is more relaxing then taking a nice hot bath at the end of the day? Magnesium is naturally calming as it elicits a response from our parasympathetic nervous system (3). Studies also suggest that intense physical activity can actually decrease our magnesium stores by 10-20%. This is a great way to avoid becoming deficient in this critical nutrient.
Not only can active stress management help us increase recovery, avoid overtraining, and maximize performance, it can also help us lose weight. Our stress response can drive our desire for highly palatable processed foods. There are many people reading this that I am sure can identify with the “stress eating” personality. The good news is that meditation can actually help decrease abdominal fat as well as curb our stress induced appetite (4).
This is an important aspect to consider when we begin a weight loss program. If we are stress eaters and we do not find a way to fix this, our weight loss programs will ultimately fail. Not only will our weight loss plans fail, but our health can deteriorate as well. High stress levels have been linked to all of the same diseases as obesity. One of the more worrisome issues in my opinion is the negative effects that obesity and stress have on our brains.
Neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s are becoming more and more prevalent in the United States. Many health experts are calling this the next big health epidemic. Obesity has been linked to an increase in rates of Alzheimer’s (5) as well as stress (6). Therefore, it is becoming more and more important to protect our brains so that we can live well into old age.
Recent research is suggesting that meditation may be able to give our brains the protection it needs. People who meditate have less atrophy in both the white and grey matter of their brains (7). This is important to understand because our neurons are in our grey matter. The better we preserve these, the better we can enter into old age.
We do not only see signs of cognitive issues in the elderly. Anxiety, depression, and ADHD are becoming more and more common as well, or even just forgetfulness. Are you so stressed that you constantly forget things? If you are suffering from any type of mood disorder meditation is a critical piece of recovery. Studies have shown that meditation can have long term positive effects in coping with these disorders (8).
I hope this article sheds some light on the importance of stress management to weight loss and overall health. It is also a critical piece for recovery and maximizing performance. Our culture is go-go-go and we never take the time to take a big deep breath and just relax. If we can do that more often we will see our health and performance inch closer to optimal.