Trouble reaching your fitness goals? Could stress be to blame?

Trouble reaching your fitness goals? Could stress be to blame?

For many of us, we look forward to our daily workout as it allows us to hopefully detach from the obligations and stresses of everyday life.  While working out after a particularly stressful day may make you feel as though you are unwinding, doing so on a continual basis can actually make your workout session less effective.

Research suggests that if your brain is tired, the rest of your body may be tired as well.  Physical and mental fatigue affect the same region of your brain, the anterior cingulate cortex, therefore if you have had an overtly stressful day it is highly likely that your muscles are tired even before you step foot in the gym.

Now, working out after a stressful day once in a while is perfectly fine, however, if you are stressed more often than not and aren't seeing results from your hours in the gym, stress could be to blame.  A new study in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology found that mental burnout significantly affects physical performance.  Here are 6 ways stress can sabotage your fitness goals.

  1. Stress Impairs Working Memory – Stress affects the party of your brain that deals with both short-term and long-term memory and "working memory" or your decision making memory.  If your working memory is impaired, which occurs with constant stress, even simple tasks become difficult and physical activity is no different.  Working out in this state will cause you to fatigue more quickly.  
  2. Stress Sabotages Concentration – High levels of stress have been shown to negatively affect concentration and mental focus.  When you are stressed, you are preoccupied with the source of the stress so you have fewer resources available to focus on the task at hand.
  3. Stress Impairs Motor Coordination – Stress has been shown to impair motor coordination because it interferes with information processing in your cerebellum.   Stress also may cause increased muscle tension, which can impede physical performance, increase your risk of injury, and slow down tissue repair.
  4. Stress Compromises Visual Acuity – High stress has been linked to simply eye twitches and even temporary blindness.  Elevated cortisol levels, which occur in high stress environments, negatively affect the way you see things and process visual cues.  When you are stressed, your pupils dilate and the muscles around your face tighten, constricting the blood vessels feeding your eyes which contributes to eye strain, headaches and decreased visual acuity.
  5. Stress Slows Exercise Recovery – Working out in and of itself is a form of stress on the body.  Normally this triggers changes that make your body stronger.  However if you are chronically stressed, that stress impairs your body's ability to respond to acute stress (such as exercise) because its resources are essentially used up.  Research shows that microscopic cellular processes that repairs damage within the body are mediated by your state of mind.
  6. Stress Impedes Weight Loss – Stress can lead to increased belly fat and weight gain.  Stress alters the way fat is deposited because of the specific hormones and other chemicals your body produces (primarily cortisol).  When your cortisol levels are elevates, your body stores more fat.

Moral of the story, next time you are wondering why you may not be reaching your fitness goals despite your time spent in the gym or your clean eating, you may want to assess the level of stress in your life.  If you find you are having prolonged stress, it may be more beneficial to take a couple hours out of your workout regimen to determine how to manage such stress so that you can reap the benefits of your hard work in the gym.