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Surviving the Holiday Season: Managing Stress & Your Health Goals

The holiday season is upon us and, for some, this means that added stress is also here. For a lot of us, and most of our clients, this time of year can be very stressful not just from a personal perspective but from a healthy lifestyle perspective as well. Balancing health and fitness goals with travel, festivities, and everything in between is not easy. This time of the year, many people struggle with adherence to nutrition goals, and although there is no specific research to back up this direct correlation, one can assume that stress is a big contributor to this.

So why am I reading this if there is no specific research tying the two together? Research like this is not easy to obtain. It requires a very specific window, and to be able to create a correlation between the two participants would most likely have to be a part of a year-long research project, if not longer. However, we have a lot of research diving into stress, how it affects the body, but also specifically how it affects weight loss or really the lack thereof.

Before we can truly dive into that, we will talk about stress and what it is. Stress is controlled by a hormone called cortisol; it is released every time your body feels either physical or psychological stress. Once it is released, a chain of reactions occurs within your body: blood pressure rises, insulin production rises, inflammation rises, and the metabolism and the immune system are suppressed. As insulin levels go up, blood sugar drops and you begin craving fatty and sugary foods. In 2017 there was a study showing the relationship between a chronic high level of stress and obesity. (Jackson et al., 2017).

This research demonstrated that cortisol not only affected fat deposition, but it also affected the quantity and quality of foods consumed. Under stress, there is “a shift in preference towards more palatable, energy-dense foods,” (Torres & Nowson, 2007) and as you may remember, (CASEY’S BLOG HERE), she talked about the effects of consuming higher fat and sugary foods. Cortisol can also influence the “reward value of food,” (Adam and Epel, 2007) due to the fact that chronic stress will throw off balance of all hunger-related hormones; this will not only make you want to ear more in general, but specifically with caloric-dense foods. It also affects the reward system we get from food, specifically high palatable foods.

In other words, it is almost like a small vicious cycle of higher stress which leads you to want fattier & sugary foods, which leads you to crave more of those foods. Often, when we see those scale fluctuations, it adds even more stress, and we are back at the start. Ya see where I am going here? This research also further proves that there is a strong correlation between chronic high cortisol levels and obesity, not just in a short time frame but over a 4-year period, which may suggest that it also “…plays a role in the maintenance of obesity” (Jackson et al., 2017).

Other things affecting how we eat and what we eat are environmental factors such as economic and food availability, as well as social factors including the influence of others, and the palatability of foods. (Torres & Nowson, 2007) I think it is safe to say every single one of these is affected during the holiday season. All though the relationship between stress and eating is not straightforward, and can be quite complex, there are definitely plenty of evidence showcasing how the two truly affect one another.

Now, the million dollar question is how can we mitigate this as best as we can, specially with the season upon us. Well, for starters, I really don’t want you to freak out. Let’s not add even MORE stress to what is potentially already a stressful time of the year. Here are a few things you could potentially work on to help you not just survive the holiday season, but thrive in it!

  1. Be PROACTIVE, not REACTIVE. Talk to your coach, the more information we know, the better we can help you. If you have parties/events/travel coming up please let us know so we can help you come up with a reasonable plan based on that specific event

  2. Set a REALLY solid foundation. This goes for both nutrition and strength training, create a routine, create go-to meals, stick to the basics. Oftentimes, we try to overcomplicate things. Stick to the basic and rely on that to anchor you through the chaos.

  3. Learn to give yourself grace & be flexible. We don’t expect perfection, we just expect your best. Do your best THAT day, give it your all. If you make a mistake, let’s try to learn from it rather than beat yourself up for it. Learn to be flexible, it is okay to miss a workout or two. It is okay to not hit every macro every time, we are looking for general adherence and consistency, not perfection. This is incredibly important when letting go of the “all-or-nothing” mentality.

  4. Create boundaries. This one is NOT an easy one for most of us, especially during the holiday season. However, creating boundaries that allow you to continue to prioritize your well-being will help you both in that moment, but also in the long term. This is specifically important when it comes to schedules, sleep, food and alcohol. You KNOW how you will feel after a long night, no sleep, and alcohol. It is okay to say “no thanks” or “not tonight” to SOME things. You can still have fun without feeling like shit for days.

  5. BE PRESENT. This is SO important during this time of year. We forget the TRUE meaning of the holidays and we get wrapped up in everything else. Don’t let that happen. Be present, enjoy the time with your loved ones, don’t let the holidays get away from you while you get lost in the chaos. Take some time for yourself, to decompress, to journal, to meditate, to fill your OWN cup.

Now we understand we may not be able to control the amount of stress that comes this holiday season, but we as coaches will do our best to remove as much of that as we can on our end. I truly hope these five tips help you as we approach this holiday season, and that this helps you understand why we truly focus on your overall well-being not just the scale!

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