You need to go for a walk.
I don’t know how many times I have had this thought run through my head when working with clients. The more I’m in the fitness industry the more I realize that many of my clients need to understand all the factors that go into leading a healthy life and the simple act of walking is certainly one of them.
But unfortunately too many individuals walk not for simple enjoyment but rather for weight loss. Trying to get individuals to change their mindset about health is tough but crucially important though.
All too often I see clients who simply don’t know how to ‘turn off.’
They are juggling a million things at once, and to top it off are looking for and requesting high intensity exercise sessions whose claim to fame is burning ____(insert randomly made up number here) calories.
While balancing calories is certainly an important component of leading a healthy life, it certainly isn’t the only component. What you need to understand is how balancing hormones is also key and cortisol is one of those hormones that is poorly misunderstood.
Cortisol is a stress hormone that is secreted by the adrenal glands which sit on top of your kidneys. While you may associate stress with being bad, this isn’t entirely true. For instance when you are lifting weights cortisol and stress hormones kick in. Any time your body is under a stress, whether it be from exercise, sickness, injury, disease or in the most extreme circumstances—getting chased by a bear—your stress hormones kick on. In these instances stress is your best friend. It allows your body to do its job.
While this is commonly referred to as acute stress, the more harmful forms of stress are chronic stress. This is when you simply are unable to ‘turn off’ your stress hormones during the appropriate times of the day. For instance, if you are under a lot of stress at work, eat poorly, don’t get sufficient sleep, having relationship or family troubles etc. your stress hormones may be ‘on’ all the time.
This is not ideal.
Put simply, think of stress as having a split personality. You absolutely need it, but too much for too long is not good.
So, like most things in life, it’s all about balance. In this case it’s hormonal balance.
The curious Case of High Intensity Exercise
Among other things high intensity exercise can be thought of as anything that turns on your stress hormones. This isn’t inherently a bad thing. I promote and encourage some forms of high intensity exercise with all my clients including weight lifting and interval training. High intensity exercise has been shown to have numerous benefits on both physical and mental health.
But…like stress, if you don’t balance high intensity exercise with moderately intense activities you most likely will have hormonal issues.
As an example, one of the more curious trends in the fitness industry is the proliferation of boot camps, high intensity group classes and CrossFit. While these exercise trends aren’t inherently bad, I imagine many people seek them out because they provide acute relief for stress levels, as well as having the potential to burn a ton of calories. Add to the fact that many of these classes don’t put a focus on exercise form, but rather intensity, and you have a recipe for potential disaster to one’s psychological and physiological health.
Need proof? Ever wonder why people get really excited about trying out a new exercise class or form or training, begin losing weight, tell everyone about it, BUT eventually aren’t able to sustain the activity for very long? A possible reason for this is that their giving their bodies too much stress. They may already be under quite a bit of stress, but because exercise acutely lowers stress levels (you usually feel great afterwards!), individuals believe high intensity exercise is the best form of fat loss. Basically they are giving too much stress to their bodies.
They need to ‘turn off’ BEFORE they start ‘turning on’ or they will most likely hit a wall at some point in time in the near future.
While properly prescribed high intensity exercise is an important component of a healthy life, don’t discount the benefits of the simple act of walking. While the act of walking isn’t an inherently calorie ‘torching’ activity, think of it rather as a hormonal balancing activity. Research has shown that walking in the woods has positive effects not only on cortisol levels but blood pressure and heart rate as well.
In a strange way walking can and absolutely should be a part of your plan if fat loss is your goal.
Because chronically elevated stress/cortisol levels influence what you eat, as well as how hard you are able to work out. For instance, if you can’t ‘turn off’ at the appropriate times, when your body should be in a rest and digest state, your body won’t be fully recovered for your exercise session. If you come to a personal training session with me and you are chronically stressed out, your body isn’t ready to elevate your cortisol levels even more. You’re basically putting stress on top of stress.
Furthermore, you build muscle, and burn the most amount of calories when you are resting. BUT if your body isn’t at rest most of the day, you are essentially swimming upstream. Your body is in fat storage mode rather than fat burning mode under chronic stress.
Finally, chronic stress is also strongly linked to increase food consumption, namely highly processed, sugary food. When you are stressed out you are looking for something to take the ‘edge’ off. Sugar and processed carbohydrates are easy to overconsume when your body is stressed out. Ever notice how most people eat more sugary, salty and fatty foods when they are stressed out? Sometimes people think that a ‘sugar detox’ is the solution, but for many people this doesn’t address the underlying potential cause, and food restriction could quite possibly add more stress to one’s life!
Put simply, we aren’t ‘addicted’ to sugar we are addicted to stress.
What You Can Do Today!
- Walk and hike more in nature (woods, trails, mountains etc.)
- Walk with friends, join a walking and/or hiking group etc.
- Avoid or limit city walking if possible
- Leave your tracking gadgets at home (fitbits, iwatches, etc.)
Remember, the act of walking isn’t about the calories being burned or the steps being taken but rather about you stress levels and overall sense of well-being.
In life, we can’t and shouldn’t quantify everything about our health. Mental health is one of those things that is incredibly hard to quantify and I don’t imagine we will ever have gadgets that accurately tell us our mental states. You’re the best judge of that 🙂
So get out and walk and take advantage of what the Pacific Northwest has to offer! 🙂