The Stress, Eating and Exercise Connection

Chronic Stress and Weight Gain

With chronic and continuous stress, the hypothalamus (part of the brain that deals with stress) directs the pituitary gland to send a signaling message hormone known as ACTH to the adrenal cortex. ACTH triggers the release of the hormone cortisol. This reaction is referred to as the HPA  (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical) axis.

If the chronic stress (real or perceived) is of adequate intensity and duration, the HPA stays heightened resulting in prolonged elevation of cortisol levels. Basically, unmitigated and chronic stress leads to daily increases of cortisol secretion. Cortisol can stimulate appetite during the intermittent recovery periods that occur while you are experiencing chronic stress. Cortisol in conjunction with elevated levels of insulin has been shown to activate lipoprotein lipase, the enzyme that facilitates fat deposition.

Additionally, chronic stress can trigger emotional changes that can lead to anxiety, apathy and depression. These changes can lead to certain food cravings and higher food consumption.

The Effect of Exercise on Stress

Good news !! Exercise  helps in managing chronic stress. Although, it is important to point out that it has been documented that over-training can have negative effects on the mind and body.  Research indicates that regular physical activity can help to protect against feelings of distress, defend against symptoms of anxiety, guard against depressive symptoms and the development of major depressive disorder and enhance psychological well-being.

The research also indicates that exercise bouts of 30- 60 minutes has the best “stress-reducing” benefits. There does not appear to be a different impact based on type of exercise ( e.g. running, cycling, swimming, rowing, etc..) One interesting finding dealt with intensity. The data shows that moderate to vigorous exercise reduces stress better than low-intensity activity.