The thing that’s really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.Anna Quindlen
I used to think the key to losing weight was exercise, exercise and more exercise! Then, I began to understand that diet has a significant impact too. Great–two things I can control. Two things I can do. Two things I can measure.
This was all well and good until my forties when Mother Nature came knocking on my door, crashing my party with her hormones and metabolism nonsense. I’ve since learned that diet and exercise are simply not enough.
There are four key components to healthy weight management. Exercise and nutrition seem like the hard core elements, the ones that can drive me to achieve my goals. What has completely blown me away is what seems to be the softer side of health—the elements which can’t be driven, but must be held and respected: recreation and sleep.
Turns out, burning a candle at both ends may make me more productive for a period of time, but it also takes a toll on my mental, emotional—and even physical—health. Meaning, two more hours behind my desk or staying up on my phone or Netflix can equate to a couple more inches around my waist over time. Thank you, Mother Nature. I am rolling my eyes at you hard like a teenage daughter.
There are still days when I have problems sleeping. When it started, I just got up and watched TV or went to the computer immediately. We all know that this is the worst thing one can do to quiet a mind. So, I started staying in bed, in the dark quiet of my bedroom, and yet again, my mind took over. In no time, I was again back at the computer or doing chores around the house at 3:30AM. None of this made me—or makes—me rested or productive for the next day. All it does is make me so tired that I need a nap on my lunch hour. This then sets off the vicious cycle come sleeptime. When I took a different approach to improve sleep, it made all the difference in the world.
The more I study (ah-hem, accepted) the real power sleep and recreation has on my middle, the more I realize the four key components are actually at the top of the list, not the bottom. Sleep and meditation, along with rest and leisure time, are not luxuries. They go hand-in-hand with health and weight management.
Psychology Today says “that the secretion of cortisol [is] associated with both chronic stress and an increase of abdominal ‘belly fat’” for both men and women. Higher cortisol levels (a stress hormone) can have a significant impact on weight gain in the mid-section. Cortisol is meant to kick in to give you a burst of energy and heightened awareness in a fight or flight situation. Then, once the emergency passes, your body returns to its normal state of being, and the stress hormones pass from your system. Perfect! However, when you live in a state of chronic stress, your cortisol levels remain heightened, and the hormones build up in your body. Then, you have more than you can use, so they turn into fat storage in your mid-section to help you “survive” a cold, harsh winter lost in the Rocky Mountains. Only, we’re just navigating this pandemic from our virtual offices amidst bake-off’s with friends and end up gaining two dress sizes.
What can we do to reduce stress, thereby contribute our best efforts toward middle management? Everyday Health offers science-backed tips for preventing stress-fueled weight gain. I’ll share a few of them here:
Be intentional about priorities for your health each week.
This can include sleep goals, calorie goals, healthier snacks, and scheduled time for rest and recreation.
Love your body.
Accept the extra curves and ripples as who you have come to be at 40, 50, or 60. Appreciate yourself, rather than loathing your body and trying to whip it into shape. You add to your stress levels and weight just by pressuring your body to be skinnier, more toned, or perform at higher levels. Love the skin you’re in.
Practice gratitude and mindful meditation.
These practices alone will go miles to reduce your stress levels. In turn, you’ll lower elevated cortisol and other stress hormone levels which produce belly fat. Reducing your stress is more far-reaching than mental and emotional well-being; it significantly impacts your physical body as well. Consider incorporating meditation apps, a gratitude journal, and/or prayer into your weekly lifestyle.
Select healthy snacks.
One side-effect of high stress is reaching for comfort foods, aka carbs. Pizza, chips, and donuts are going to send your scale sky-rocketing and your well-being plummeting. Plan in advance to fuel your body. Keep good things like healthier snack options on hand like almonds, popcorn, grape tomatoes, baby carrots, yogurts, and fruits.
Sleep, rest, play.
Schedule time to do nothing. Practice self-care. In the 2010 movie Eat, Pray, Love, Julia Roberts’ character learned the Italian phrase il dolce far niente: “the sweetness of doing nothing.” It is an art lost on us Americans, a secret to health and longevity, that we would do well to fully understand and incorporate into our values and lifestyles. We seem to prefer the term “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” All of us need to refocus that thought process. Finding ourselves more stressed, less productive, out-of-shape—and at least six pounds heavier is not at all what we want for ourselves, or our health.
Let’s learn from my Italian family and friends to minimize stress and emphasize love, play, and rest. We’ll enjoy a more meaningful life, and just maybe, lose a dress size or two!