Got Stress?

Stress reduction, reduce stressThe economy, the housing market, your job, your children, your hour-long commute, or caring for your aging parents are just a few things that can add stress to your life. But what does stress have to do with your waistline?

Enter cortisol; a stress hormone that causes people to accumulate fat around the center of the body and is commonly referred to as belly fat. As you likely know from the myriad magazines lining grocery store check-out aisles, this is not an attractive place to store fat. What you may not know however, is that the center of your body (aka visceral obesity) is a very unhealthy place to store fat.

Manufacturers and marketers understand our anxiety about our appearance.  Magazines and websites continually advertise products, tips and tricks for flattening your stomach, shrinking your waistline, or building six pack abs. Commercials detail ‘ab targeting workouts’ and descriptions of herbal concoctions or pills that will curb your hunger and melt away the pounds.

However, a study by the University of California San Francisco proves that an important step toward halting weight gain might be to address the underlying cause of the belly fat accumulation: stress. And although you might think that would be done with working out, it may have more to do with working within.

The Hypothesis:

What if mindfulness could promote an internal hormonal change (i.e., a decrease in the amount of cortisol produced) and thereby decrease the amount of belly fat gained? After all, the study suggests that mindfulness training has been successful in reducing stress and thereby addressing a variety of health conditions.

For four months, participants in the study engaged in weekly mindfulness training; yoga, guided meditation, or awareness techniques surrounding food and appetite.

The results?

Volume 2011 of The Journal of Obesity reported the following:

“Groups did not differ on average cortisol awakening response (CAR), weight, or abdominal fat over time. However, obese treatment   participants showed significant reductions in CAR and maintained body weight, while obese control participants had stable CAR and gained weight. Improvements in mindfulness, chronic stress, and CAR were associated with reductions in abdominal fat. This proof of concept study suggests that mindfulness training shows promise for improving eating patterns and the CAR, which may reduce abdominal fat over time.”

This study further underscores the importance of addressing the hormonal environment of the body rather than counting calories or trying to work out more. Do you have friends or know people who work out all the time, but never lose weight? Consider this: all of those intense workouts could be creating more cortisol; that stress hormone that leads to weight gain. More cortisol = more belly fat. More belly fat makes people think they need to work out more. A vicious cycle, indeed.

If you have some of the above listed stressors in your life, consider adding some mindfulness training to your fitness routine. Yoga, meditation, or qi gong can add a great deal to your health and well-being. And you’ve likely never heard anyone require a knee replacement because of too much meditation.

Some health clubs, like Life Time Fitness, encourage participants to get blood work or saliva tests done so the status of the internal environment can be assessed by physicians prior to creating workout plans. Think about it: if your cortisol is through the roof, do you want to add more stress (and therefore, cortisol) to your body by squatting to failure or running sprints to exhaustion? Likely not. You may instead want to change your personal trainer.

Good luck.

About The Author

Amy Scott

Amy Scott Erickson has a master’s degree from the University of Minnesota and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin—Madison. She is currently the dean of the Health Fitness Specialist degree at Globe University and is a certified Muscle Activation Techniques Specialist. Prior to her role as a dean, Amy was a rowing coach and recruiting coordinator for the University of Texas and the Head Strength & Conditioning coach for the University of Minnesota Women’s Athletic Department. A former Division I athlete, Amy now enjoys cycling, aerial yoga, strength training and is considering taking up rodeo as a new sport.