Running the Rat Race can make you FAT

By Dr Karen Coates

The idea that weight loss is purely a factor of ENERGY IN (food) versus ENERGY OUT movement/exercise) is a very rudimentary and often inaccurate concept. If only life was that simple! Women especially will truthfully report that they ‘eat like a bird’ and are still unable to lose weight.

The hidden factor in this puzzling phenomenon is stress.

Most people equate stress with external pressures such as money problems, relationship difficulties and health issues. During times of pressure and worry, to compensate, our bodies manufacture the stress hormones, adrenalin and cortisol.

BUT imbalances within the biochemistry of the body itself, such as hormonal instability, nutritional deficiencies, and chemical load also provoke the production of stress hormones. These hormones create a cascade of biological changes that can ultimately challenge our ability to maintain good health.

Hitting the panic button! In primitive times, the major cause of stress was a threat to life or limb – an attack by an enemy tribe or wild animal for instance. Our bodies adapted to this stress by creating a surge in the production of the hormone adrenalin, which is produced by the adrenal glands located behind each kidney.

Adrenalin increases our heart rate, forcing blood to flow to the major muscles of our limbs. This is done to prepare us to either fight for our life or run from danger.

If stress does persist over a long period of time without release, the adrenal glands begin manufacturing a ‘heavy duty’ stress hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is produced to ensure that we have the best chance of survival in extreme environmental conditions that could lead to a shortage of food, such as drought. In response to the production of cortisol, the body will automatically conserve its fat stores.

In modern society, our ongoing stress is usually a reaction to the hefty responsibilities we believe are placed on us, and the poor lifestyle choices we tend to make. It is seldom a reaction to truly dangerous environmental conditions. Stress can persist in some form or another for years while food supplies remain plentiful. The human body, not knowing the cause of stress, will store fat regardless.

Worrying the weight on.

In our primitive past, tribes had to ensure the survival of the tribe over the survival of the individual during threatening times. A pecking order of food distribution was established. Young women who were still able to breed and children came first in this order, followed by the warriors of the tribe. Older women were last in line for dwindling food supplies. In order to survive such stressful times, these older women developed the ability to store energy more efficiently (in the form of fat stored in the body). This way they could survive on minimal rations. With this understanding, the weight struggles of today’s women can be seen in a more positive light: as the successful adaptation of the ‘survival of the fittest’ principle.

Stress, in today’s society, is seldom the result of food shortages and it often persists in some form or another for years. Worst still, the continuous food supply provides a never ending stock for our increasing abdominal larder.

Addressing long-term stress, through lifestyle management and by making choices that help us to live a more relaxed life, can support our body’s own ability to maintain a healthy weight.

It’s not about saying ‘no’ to others, it’s about saying ‘yes’ to yourself!

One of the most important tools we have to combat stress is the two-letter word ‘no’. Setting boundaries in work, family and personal relationships by saying ‘NO’ to excessive demands on our time is a very effective stress management tool.

The right exercise is an integral piece of the weight control puzzle. To determine the movement and exercise routine that is ideal for optimal health we return to our ancestral past. As hunters and gatherers we travelled long distances in early morning to stalk animals and moved in for the kill with dynamic bursts of aerobic activity. If successful for the day, we returned to camp for a hearty meal and a late afternoon siesta.

Following this principle, your movement program should be based around the concept of interval training (short bursts of aerobic activity, interspersed with less robust movement). This effectively disperses stress hormones without overtraining, which creates its own stresses on the body. Our bodies were not built for Spin Classes!

Look for opportunities to MOVE!

Don’t underestimate the value of “accidental exercise”!