Have you ever wondered why it is so hard to lose those last 5 kilos after plateauing? Or why despite the right diet and gym routine every day you can't lose weight? Blame your brain, it is actually stress that is making you overweight. According to the founder of Uppy, Laura Moore, a performance and health coach, the body doesn't understand the difference between a real or perceived threat so although someone may only be stressed about the amount of emails in their inbox, the body goes into fight or flight mode. This sets off a chain reaction of biochemical events in the body that piles on the pounds.
Laura has listed below the ways that stress sends the body into chaos and how to fix it.
Public enemy number one. When an individual is stressed the adrenal glands in the body are activated which release adrenaline to increase the heartrate and blood flow, as well as cortisol to flood the body with glucose for immediate energy. Cortisol however also slows down the body's metabolism to maintain the glucose supply, and when it isn't used, it is stored as fat…on the stomach! These elevated glucose levels also suppress insulin levels which decreases energy in the cells. As a result the brain sends out hunger signals which causes over-eating.
When we don't get a good night's sleep it disrupts the hormones ghrelin and leptin in our body. These hormones turn our appetite on and off and tell the brain what to do with the fat (use for energy or store it). Lack of sleep will confuse the process and you will experience unnecessary hunger, not know when you are full, and store fat when it should be burned. Furthermore our ability to perform at our best and make good decisions depends on the amount of sleep we have had, so on a day after little sleep you may choose to forgo exercise and choose poor meal options.
Digestion and calories
When the body is trying to fight a threat it shuts down anything not integral to survival at that moment, therefore when the body is stressed it normally shuts down the digestion system. Food is then not digested properly and a toxic build up ensues. These toxins retain fat and excess water resulting in you feeling puffy and sluggish. The calories we eat need sufficient nutrients in order to build tissue or burn fat. If our digestion is poor we don't absorb the nutrients and the calories cause excess fat. The absence of the nutrients also triggers an urge to eat and leaves us feeling consistently hungry and in 'fat storage mode', making weight loss very difficult.
Exercise can be stressful on the body but not necessarily a negative stress. If your body is in a constant heightened state of stress then it will already have excess hormones and doesn't need any more. Exercise releases cortisol but if the levels are already too high in your body then it could contribute to weight gain. In this type of situation, re-evaluate the type of exercise and intensity and notch it down until the optimal state of the body is restored.
How do we fix it?
According to Laura the best way to overcome "stress induced fat" is to do the following:
Sleep 7-8 hours a night (it has been said time and time again but it is true)
Turn off technology 30-60 minutes before sleeping (the blue light it emits kills melatonin which is needed to sleep) and establish a relaxing sleep routine
Eat simple meals with no more than 7 ingredients and make them whole, natural ingredients
Practice yoga and meditation (even start with diaphragmatic breathing) – this helps increase awareness and is the best way to relax the sympathetic nervous system, giving you a sense of calm and clarity
Know what your stress triggers are and devise to deal with them
Get professional advice
Do what makes you happy – schedule it in at least once a week and don't let anything distract you from it
Uppy is a specialised service that gives driven women more time, energy and freedom to focus on what is really important to them and maximise their performance, both personally and professionally.
Question: Why is it so hard to lose the last 5kg?
Laura Moore: When we begin to lose weight the body starts to get its energy by releasing glycogen, which is the energy stored in our muscles and liver. Part of this is made up of water so when it's burned for energy water is also released, which can contribute quite considerably to that initial drop.
If consistent weight training is not part of your fitness regime you will be losing muscle as well as fat, which causes your metabolism to slow down. Since energy is stored in the muscles if there is less muscle then the energy requirement will be less also.
Typically as you get leaner your metabolism will start to slow anyway as your overall body mass will be less so your body doesn't need as much energy to support your frame. What this means is the diet and exercise programs you have been following may no longer be appropriate and will need adjusting according to your body's new requirements.
It is also common practice that when we start a new health and fitness regime we give it our all and make sure we follow everything to the letter, but as the time goes on we start to ease up a bit and stop paying such close attention to what's going into our mouths or how much we are moving. The only way to overcome this and rule it out as a possible reason for a plateau is to start tracking what you're doing again and ensure you are actually doing what you think you're doing!
This can be true for both over and under eating and exercising. If you don't eat enough calories for a sustained period of time your body will start to think you're experiencing a famine so it will slow down your metabolism and hold onto the energy stores you do have in a bid to help you survive until food is available again. If your body doesn't have enough fuel and you continue to exercise at an intense rate, your body will actually start to eat your muscle tissue in an attempt to get the fuel it needs.
It is important to note that our body weight can fluctuate quite considerably depending on the time of day and month, this is largely due to water retention which can be caused by too much sodium in the diet, insufficient water intake and hormonal imbalances. Therefore a plateau should only be considered a true plateau if there is no change in body weight for 3 weeks. As mentioned above, at this point be sure to track what you're doing as your first action and then consider other factors within your life, such as stress.
Stress and not switching off can also have a massive impact. It causes the body to think it is in danger so it sets off a chain reaction of biochemical events to try and ensure your survival.
Adrenaline and Cortisol
The main culprits for this plateau or indeed weight gain are the hormones adrenaline and cortisol – their purpose is to produce and convert fuel for the muscles to enable you to react with speed and strength (to fight or flight), and also to store energy to ensure you will be sustained throughout the danger period. Of course if all we're doing is sitting at our desk and thinking over and over, extra fuel is the last thing we need so as a result it accumulates, particularly around the mid-section.
This process can also lead to your digestive system being shut down because the body does not deem it necessary for survival. This means the body becomes toxic as the waste is not being dealt with efficiently and the appropriate nutrients are not being drawn out of the food so you become depleted of energy right down to a cellular level.
The reproductive system is also not considered a necessity during this time, which often results in irregular or painful periods and PMS. As well as having an effect on mood this is also another factor responsible for water retention and leaving the body in a confused state.
Sleep is usually disrupted when stressed too, because the body wants you to remain in a state of readiness in case you need to fight or run away. This disrupts the hormones ghrelin and leptin. These hormones turn your appetite on and off and tell the brain what to do with the fat (use for energy or store it). Lack of sleep will confuse the process and you will experience unnecessary hunger, not know when you are full, and store fat when it should be burned. Furthermore your ability to perform at your best and make good decisions depends on the amount of sleep you have had, so on a day after little sleep you may choose to forgo exercise and choose poor meal options.
Question: How can we prevent any stress impacting our waist line?
Laura Moore: The first step is to tune into your body and listen to what it's telling you. It is incredibly wise so if something's up it will send you a signal, which could be anything from an energy dip or cold to an injury or even disease. With the busy lifestyles we now live it can be easy for our body's communication to get lost amongst the endless to-do lists and constant thinking, and with the never ending supply of information available to us it causes even more confusion as we get lost in the land of what we 'should' do rather than what we actually need.
Since it's the mind that causes the body to respond to stress we must pay particular attention to that if we want to prevent it impacting our waistline and indeed our health. So giving it a little break here and there throughout the day is recommended. This will involve setting yourself some boundaries, for example:
Do not allow yourself to use your phone or technology 30mins before bed and after you wake up in the morning. This allows you to start and finish the day in a calmer state as you're reducing your exposure to extra stimulation at the time the body is trying to find its natural rhythm.
Give yourself a little break away from your desk at lunch time. You can do this physically by getting out for a quick walk around the block, without your phone, and/or mentally by sitting quietly and taking 10-20 long deep slow belly breaths. Both of these activities help to reset the mind, reassure the body that it's not in danger, and energise you for the afternoon.
In fact, whenever you are feeling stressed, tired or lacking clarity take yourself off and do this breathing exercise – note, the toilet can be a great place to do this! Although you may think you don't have time, taking a step back will actually propel you further forward with greater momentum.
Ensure you give yourself some proper downtime throughout the week to do something you love and with people you love
Question: What are your top three tips to managing stress?
Laura Moore: Create boundaries and make them non-negotiable, such as specific times without technology, specific days/times during the week where you do something purely for yourself or allowing yourself to say no to things that don't serve you and your goals. Allow yourself and your body time to switch off from the daily grind and worries. Remember that doing so will actually accelerate you further forward.
Practice diaphragmatic or belly breathing daily. This calms the sympathetic nervous system, which stops the body from being in flight or fight mode and initiating the responses discussed above. It also pushes more oxygen around the body, which energises you right down to a cellular level and helps prevent illness and disease.
Get curious. Listen to what your body is telling you and notice how it responds in different situations. Documenting this for a few weeks is ideal as it will allow you to identify patterns and understand what your stress triggers are. Once you know this you can put plans in place to reduce or eliminate the impact of these triggers – remember stress is just a state of mind, so while we may not be able to physically remove the cause of stress we can change your response to it.
Question: How can we use exercise as a way of preventing stress?
Laura Moore: When we exercise it releases endorphins which make us feel good, as well as promoting proper functioning of our cardiovascular system and keeping our joints healthy, so in this way we can combat stress physiologically.
As mentioned above however, it is the mind that we need to pay attention to when trying to prevent stress. As well as this release of hormones, exercise also allows us valuable time to take ourselves away from the daily grind and give the mind a break by switching off. I always say that actions of motivation come before feelings of motivation, so in doing exercise it also makes us feel good for doing something to look after ourselves and then motivates us in other areas of our lives.
Question: What are your top tips to dealing with stressful situations?
Laura Moore: Breathe and pause. Remember as I said before, stress is simply
Focus on the things you can control and make peace with the things you can't
Be curious and notice exactly what is going on in the situation and what you can do to make it less stressful
Remind yourself what is important to you and what you're striving for – if you know that being stressed in that situation doesn't serve your values and greater purpose, it will help you to start looking for another way to respond
Question: How does "doing what makes us happy" aid in our weight loss?
Laura Moore: Doing what makes you happy is basically your way of saying to the body, "I'm ok, I'm not in danger". It tells it that you don't need to be ready to fight or flight so normal functioning can remain. When you're having fun and laughing your body releases the 'happy hormones' such as endorphins, and reduces the levels of stress hormones, like cortisol.
It can be difficult to give yourself enough of this important 'downtime' as you have 'so much to do', but the benefits of doing so will actually help you achieve more, enjoy more and live more.
Question: How would you describe Uppy?
Laura Moore: Uppy specialises in more. I created the brand as a way of helping people get what they truly want out of their lives and live more. Uppy is not just a program, it's a philosophy. I want to help people understand the power of their beliefs, habits and behaviours on their health and subsequently their performance in all areas of their lives. I want them to know that true health and wellness is more than simply eating better and moving more, and that if they just focus their efforts in the right place, maintaining it for the long term is actually quite easy.
As well as talks and workshops to teach the Uppy philosophy, we offer one on one programs that are tailored predominantly towards driven corporate and business women aged 35-55. It focuses on the BIG 5 areas that make up every woman's life, and unlocks the full potential of each one, allowing them to achieve more, enjoy more and live more.
Question: What inspired the creation of Uppy?
Laura Moore: I've always had a tricky relationship with food and my body. Growing up I was the chubby one in the group and I remember that my parents were always on diets and trying to lose weight. Over the years I became very much an all or nothing eater and would either be 'good' (which usually consisted of cutting something out or restricting entire food groups) or bad (where I would eat everything I could lay my hands on). Needless to say I didn't achieve any lasting results.
I'd started to develop a bit of a love affair, or perhaps obsession, with health and fitness but it wasn't until I moved across the other side of the world that this love affair became my career (previously I had been in the corporate world in Customer Service and Marketing). Within 3 years I had risen through the ranks of the health and fitness industry from Personal Trainer to Studio Manager and then to Studio Owner. Eight months after fully fitting out and establishing my own personal training studio however I watched it burn to the ground, as a result of a wok fire in the neighbouring Chinese restaurant. While I did relocate the business and keep it running for a further 9 months I came to the realisation that it no longer made financial or emotional sense, so I shut it down.
Throughout my experiences as a woman struggling with weight, working in the corporate world, moving to a new country, establishing myself in a new industry and progressing up the ladder, starting a business and dealing with the aftermath of that business burning down, I have faced many different pressures and used many different behaviours to try to overcome them (such as binge eating, binge drinking, over exercising, over working and procrastination…to name a few). As a result my body started to respond by putting on weight (even though my eating and exercise hadn't changed), I had periods of extreme fatigue, anxiety, bad digestion with constant bloating and no period for 2 years. I applied everything I knew and had learned as a personal trainer but still my body continued to deteriorate.
I embarked on a journey of discovery to try and figure out what the hell was going on, trying all the different therapies and supplements you can think of, which naturally cost me a lot of money and time. Eventually however I realised that all of my issues were stemming from one thing…my mind. I've always had a very driven personality and put a lot of pressure on myself to be the best and finally it caught up with me, as it caused me to work ridiculous hours, have very little sleep, push my body physically on a daily basis and never be able to switch my brain off. It wasn't until I addressed this that my body started to restore itself.
I then began to notice how so many people around me were also facing these same challenges to some degree. I realised that as a personal trainer I had often simply been helping people put a band aid over their real issues and although I was always trying to help them at a deeper level by understanding their behaviours, I hadn't appreciated just how integral this was in order to create real change and optimum health and performance until I experienced it first-hand. And so I created Uppy.
Interview by Brooke Hunter