Check your priorities when it comes to your goals.
Most people are ready to jump into the gym when they first decide to get healthier. And that’s great! Movement is definitely a big part of being healthy.
However, that should only be the beginning of the progression. Once someone sees how good they feel with this new regimen, it usually doesn’t take long for them to start wanting to reach new goals in their workouts. Which, again, is great!
But sooner or later, many gym-goers hit a wall. Their fitness just doesn’t progress like it used to. Which, to some extent, is normal (this graph illustrates the lessening of “gains” in the gym over time, with more experience):
This often feels like a decrease in return for people and it gets frustrating. Why aren’t you seeing results like you used to?
Or even worse… why do you feel like you’re losing progress and getting weaker, even though you’re working out more than ever?
It might have to do with your health.
The fastest way to get fit
Ah yes, the golden ticket to fitness fame: figuring out the “best” way to get fit. Which usually implies “the fastest” way to get fit.
First of all, if six pack abs could truly be attained easily, a lot more people would have them.
Second of all, there’s only one way to ensure the fastest possible way of getting fit: being healthy first.
I say this to clients all the time and it’s worth putting into writing: you cannot be truly fit without also being healthy.
Are you training an unhealthy body for fitness?
The gym seems to be the stopping point for many. They think they’re suddenly healthy because they show up and move around a little three times per week.
It’s fine if working out is your starting point to a more well-rounded, healthy life. Heck, that was mine!
But if exercise is all you do to change your health, you’re going to hit some bumps eventually.
The whole view of fitness as a “health regimen” can get wonky. So, I propose we clarify the two.
- Health involves the nutrition, sleep, body function (including fitness), interpersonal relationships, financial arrangements, and mindset work toward having an all-around “wellness” centered life… with the blood work to prove that it’s working.
- Fitness is related to how good you are at a particular exercise or sport, as defined by whatever “good” is in that particular event.
Fitness is inherently part of a well-rounded healthy life. But if other parts of your life aren’t also improving to be healthy in their own right, the body will revolt against exercise in a detrimental way.
The dark side of exercise: when it stops being helpful
Exercise is literally a stressor on your body. You are doing something to challenge it, break it down, and force it to repair itself stronger than before.
When a body is unhealthy, it’s already dealing with added stressors. Just to name a few…
- Inflammation from:
- Food intolerances
- Autoimmune issues
- Vastly fluctuating blood sugar levels
- Digestive upset
- Hormonal imbalance
- Mental fatigue from:
- Perceived stress in daily life
- Lack of sleep
- Interpersonal relationship issues
- Dislike of job/income source
- Unstable income source
If we’re operating off the definition of exercise as a stress on the body, we need to remember that an unhealthy body already has so much other stress it’s dealing with.
So while exercise is a “healthy” amount of stress on a healthy body, that same stress can be used to amplify the problems of a sick body.
Chronic stress in today’s society
It’s not just a buzzword. Chronic stress is real, and it’s affecting most people in Western civilization today.
The thing with long-term stress is that it can be clinically defined. Cortisol, the body’s main & slowest-release stress hormone, can be measured using a saliva test.
You basically spit in little vials several times throughout the day, and laboratories can measure the amount of cortisol in each vial to determine how much of it your body is releasing throughout the day.
This graph shows what the body’s “ideal” stress levels should look like, versus malfunctioning levels throughout the day (the graph might look different person-to-person, based on when their body is releasing cortisol):
We evolved to experience the highest level of stress in our lives upon waking up. This is likely due to the fact that you haven’t eaten since the day before, and fasting is a stressor to the body (3). It makes sense that the body would wake us up in our most alert state, knowing we needed to find food and water for the day as soon as possible.
By bedtime, our bodies should be releasing very little to no cortisol. But in a chronically-stressed person, they’re still firing strongly from their adrenal glands.
Constantly-elevated cortisol has been linked to weight gain, decreased sleep quality, digestive problems, and more (4).
So how does all of this tie to fitness?
When health gets in the way of fitness
Fitness becomes addictive. It’s an adrenaline rush in the moment, you feel great afterwards, and there are long laundry lists of the benefits of exercise.
But it is also a stressor. Adrenaline is a stress hormone, also known as epinephrine. This is the acute, “fast-release” stress hormone (5).
So when a chronically stressed person exercises, they now have a lovely cocktail of stress hormones swimming around their bloodstream.
Follow that up with a bad meal for dinner which sets off the body’s red alert for food intolerances, then a night of poor sleep due to the high blood sugar and thinking about work problems… and do it all again tomorrow.
No wonder you’re not reaching those fitness goals.
Not to mention the increased risk for injury that’s common to see in unhealthy people over-working in the gym…
The body isn’t given the breathing room it needs to properly repair itself from all the stress, so you just end up feeling weak, fatigued and even more mentally stressed because WHY ISN’T THIS WEIGHT COMING OFF?
Know when to exercise and when to back off.
If it sounds too familiar that you drag yourself to the gym after 4 hours of sleep before a long day at work, reconsider what you’re prioritizing.
2017 was a year that shattered beliefs for many. A bunch of experts came together and essentially ranked the most important factors involved in fat loss. They are, in order from most important to least important:
I propose that this hierarchy is a result of how a healthy body naturally loses weight easier than an unhealthy one. This study (7) actually states that low-quality sleep will undermine nutritional efforts to lose fat.
For our bodies, stress = “I’m probably starving,” so stress hormones were made to cue the body to hold onto its fat.
Since most people start exercising to lose weight, this is huge to take note of – and adjust your lifestyle accordingly.
We need to decrease stress in the right areas for the stress of exercise to truly benefit us in the way we want it to.
Some cases in which the person would benefit from a health approach that tackles things other than fitness would include:
- During times of autoimmune flare ups
- Severe diabetes
- Hormonal imbalances that are a result of high cortisol
- Periods with little or no quality sleep
- Times of fasting
- Times of severe emotional/mental/interpersonal stress
This list is not comprehensive, but it conveys the idea I want to give.
Walking: the most underrated exercise we have
One thing worth mentioning in all of this is the fact that “exercise” doesn’t always have to be high-intensity, sweat-through-your-shirt difficult. But that type of exercise is what this article is referring to as possibly detrimental.
An incredibly beneficial and natural exercise is walking. It’s low-intensity, meditative, and an inherent part of being human.
We evolved to do it all day, every day. That doesn’t happen for most people in America anymore.
Spending time outside can be incredibly beneficial for lowering stress levels, and the body will feel good without reaching the point of over-exertion that usually comes from the gym. Not to mention the vitamin D creation from sunlight, which will help improve sleep.
Walking is such a natural motion that doing it as your exercise during stressful times shouldn’t send the body into SOS mode, like weight lifting or HIIT can.
And even if you’re in a healthy time where you can exercise harder, walking a few times a week is beneficial for everyone.
This is by no means a call to stop exercising. But if there’s anything you take away from this article, let it be this:
You cannot truly work toward a “fit” body if it isn’t healthy first.
Many have tried – and have subsequently injured themselves or made their preexisting health conditions much worse from it.
Talk to any professional athletes and they’ll tell you that their coaches advise them on everything – food, sleep, mentality, lifestyle – to make sure they will perform their best.
If the other areas of your life are crazy, you’re at a greater risk for hurting yourself and/or decreasing your body’s abilities by trying to push through it in the gym.
Don’t be afraid to take time off, recover, and support your fitness goals with the other stuff… because that’s where the success comes from.
(1) Ballachey, G. (2014). The diminishing returns of strength training. Sustainable Balance. Retrieved from http://sustainablebalance.ca/the-diminishing-returns-of-strength-training/
(2) Millard, E. (2016). The cortisol curve. Experience Life. Retrieved from https://experiencelife.com/article/the-cortisol-curve/
(3) Akesson, A. (2017). Is intermittent fasting a good idea when suffering from stress? Diet Doctor. Retrieved from https://www.dietdoctor.com/would-you-still-recommend-intermittent-fasting-if-i-have-adrenal-dysfunction
(4) n.a. (2018). Chronic stress puts your health at risk. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037
(5) n.a. (2018). Exercising to relax. Harvard Health Publishing. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037
(6) Herring, S. A. (2000). Psychological issues related to injury in athletes and the team physician: a consensus statement. AOSSM. Retrieved from https://www.sportsmed.org/AOSSMIMIS/members/downloads/education/ConsensusStatements/PsychologicalIssues.pdf
(7) Nedeltcheva, A.V., et. al. (2011). Insufficient sleep undermines dietary efforts to reduce adiposity. Ann Intern Medicine, 153 (7). doi: 10.1059/0003-4819-153-7-201010050-00006