Clearly, one of the main reasons people exercise is to lose weight. Combined with a healthy diet, this can often do the trick.
Of course, there are many exceptions to this general rule. For instance, if a person has a low-functioning thyroid, eats the wrong ratios of food nutrients (too many carbohydrates, not enough protein), has insomnia (that’s right – inadequate sleep will help you gain fat!), or several other metabolic issues, they may have a difficult time losing weight despite exercising.
But aside from these things, sometimes a person will still gain weight around their midsections and thighs, despite being on the right exercise and diet track.
Or, they lose weight all over their body, except these key areas.
So, why does this happen?
Well, this can be due to a hormonal ‘glitch’, so to speak. The glitch happens when we manufacture too much of the hormone cortisol.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone, produced by the adrenal glands. It’s often referred to as a “stress” hormone – that’s because it’s usually produced in situations where the body is under stress. Stresses that cause cortisol to be released in higher than normal amounts include high intensity or long duration exercise, insomnia, injury, pain and mental emotional stress. It’s also our body’s natural anti-inflammatory – it keeps the immune system in check when we’re sick or injured; it can actually prevent the immune system from doing it’s job (this is part of why endurance athletes can get sick more often – high cortisol levels allow for more infections…but that’s another story…)
But back to the weight gain issue. Overtime, chronically elevated cortisol will have a few effects on your body. Remember, it rises from stress. When your brain perceives stress, it also prepares your body to get ready to deal. Cortisol achieves this by flooding your bloodstream with glucose, or blood sugar (this is the energy you need for fight or flight), and it also signals the body to store energy, as fat – in case you need it for later (remember the body is trying to survive here – and in the old days survival often meant running really far away from something and you might be without your food stash for a while).
So how does exercise cause this? Well, when you add high intensity exercise, day after day, along with poor sleep, skipping rest days, allowing for poor recovery (not cooling down and gobbling to many carbohydrates) and just basically not handling stress overall, you wind up with cortisol levels that push against what you’re trying to achieve with exercise.
Yep, you’re burning plenty of calories and getting in shape, but behind the scenes your body is putting more sugar in your blood stream (which raises insulin, which it then stores sugar as fat in your belly and hips).
This isn’t a mythical scenario. I see it quite often in people who basically drive their bodies and lifestyle way too hard.
So how do we keep this from happening? You’ve got do some things to keep your cortisol levels in check. Basically, it involves preventing the stress response in the first place. Yes, some stress is good for you and cortisol is necessary for life, but I’m talking about doing things to keep it from going into constant overdrive.
The take home message is this – chronic stress, in the form of too much/too intense exercise, coupled with common lifestyle and dietary stressors, will put weight on your belly and thighs despite the fact you’re exercising. Reducing intensity and altering lifestyle stressors will allow for healthier hormone balance and soon enough you’ll start to see the fat come off those areas.
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Often times I am asked, “just how long can I rest while I recover from my injury/illness, before I start to lose my fitness level”? All of us are hesitant to give up the gains we have made from all of that training. Although this is not a straight forward question, there is plenty of enlightening research on this subject.
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