Escaping the Tiger: How stress is undermining your fitness goals

I’ve noticed a trend in my work with clients over the years. It’s particularly common with a certain type of individual: the doer, the manager, the go-getter, the boss. The people who most of us personal trainers love so much to work with, those who don’t need a carrot to chase or the crack of a whip to do the work.

Those who show up motivated and determined, and simply need me to give instruction. This trend, however, presents an obstacle in the way of optimal health and wellbeing for them. I call it the trend of “pushing through”. “Well, that doesn’t sound like such a bad thing,” you may be thinking. Yes it’s true that in our world “pushing through” is often praised.

Movies idealize “pushing through” adverse circumstances, students “push through” intense work loads for years to land the career, and we “push through” at work to meet demands, quotas, and deadlines. Often, mental fortitude and perseverance are golden qualities that help us reach our potential. But on the other hand, our desire to achieve can create blind spots where our needs are being neglected or even ignored. What I want to discuss is how this “push through” mentality relates to fitness and physical health. Specifically, I want to look at stress and the body’s response to it.

Brah, I’m not that stressed

You might think stress refers to the yucky stuff only. Stress at work, school, family conflicts, financial worries, etc. While stress can feel bad, it’s not limited to negative experiences only. One definition from 1926 says stress is “any nonspecific response to any stimulus that overcomes, or threatens to overcome, the body’s ability to maintain homeostasis (state of equilibrium of the body’s internal biological mechanisms).” In other words, stress is the response mechanism for maintaining equilibrium when influenced by any external factor. Stress can be a positive thing, like one’s response to the accountability from a deadline to turn in an assignment, or the response to a heavy weight when performing a loaded exercise. Ok, so if stress is a natural part of life, then why does it get such a bad rap? The answer has much to do with the way that stress accumulates in the body, the chronic high stress condition that many people are living in, and our tendency to “push through” rather than decrease it.

Let’s look at how the body responds to and manages stress. It’s important to understand that the response to stress is virtually the same whether the stress is physical or psychological. In other words, healthy exercise creates stress. An argument with a loved one creates stress. Long work days at a rewarding job still create stress. And here’s what that response mechanism can look like in your body:

To be, or not to be dinner

The stress response mechanism is commonly known as “fight or flight”. Essentially, when faced with a stressor our body prepares to face it or flee from it. Some systems in the body will shut down or decrease activity to allow for more energy to go to the systems needed to survive the stressor. This response is fast acting yet short lived. Once in the clear, a phase of recovery allows the body to return to homeostasis and for all systems to return to normal function. This whole process worked well for our ancestors who may have needed to fend off a predator, a physical stressor causing an acute response, but then took time to rest and allow the internal state of alarm to subside before another stressor came along. You survive an encounter with a saber-toothed tiger, or perhaps you are the one doing the chasing, and then you get to relax a bit before the next Neanderthal plight. But what about in our modern world? What happens when the recovery period is replaced with less intense yet sustained psychological stressors? When stress is almost always present in our lives through work, school, relationships, politics, entertainment, exercise, etc? Is “pushing through” the way to wellbeing?

When stress manifests physically

To address that question, we should look at a few examples of the amazing ways the body “fights” to survive a stressor (physiological or psychological) and how this response can become dangerous over prolonged periods of time. Take cortisol production, for example. Cortisol is a hormone released by the adrenal gland in response to stress. This hormone is a fantastic ally. Some of its functions include breaking down stored fats to be used for fuel, promoting uptake of fats into the muscle cells, and acting as an immunosuppressant to prevent an overactive immune response to an acute stressor. When high levels of cortisol are sustained, though, other hormones that promote essential functions are impeded or interrupted. Estrogen, which is vital for reproductive function and distribution and uptake of fats, is inhibited by high cortisol levels. Yes, cortisol can actually prevent you from losing body fat, even when, and especially when, you are trying your hardest to burn it off! With long term suppressed immune function caused by cortisol, the body is more susceptible to injuries and illness. Testosterone too, an essential hormone that is important for muscle synthesis, is decreased. These are just a few of the important processes affected by prolonged elevated cortisol levels. Another amazing function of our stress response is the increase of epinephrine, which increases blood clotting capability. This helps to keep the body from bleeding to death when wounded. Over a long time, however, increased clotting can put one at risk for cardiovascular problems, including stroke.

Paying a price for stress?

To sum up the above, our bodies have amazing ways of responding to stress and keeping us alive in emergency situations. But like a light being left on all day every day, there is a cost to drawing so much energy and resources from other bodily systems over the long term. If you feel like you exercise enormous amounts and have a healthy diet, and still see no changes in body composition, consider the possibility that stress levels are too high. When the body is busy responding to stressors all the time, the functions important to supporting you in your fitness goals are not happening optimally. This is known in the world of fitness as burnout. That means, and I know this can be hard to hear, your stubborn need to DO MORE and “push through” may be exactly what is your way. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

• Do I have trouble sleeping frequently?

• Do I often feel fatigued and/or weak and sluggish?

• Do I exercise religiously, regardless of being tired or ill?

• Do I exercise for periods longer than 2 hours a day?

• Do I experience either extreme lack of appetite or intense urges to overeat?

• Do I struggle to lose body fat even though I follow recommended exercise and diet suggestions?

• Do I exercise vigorously more than 5 days a week?

The one-week experiment

If you’ve answered most of these questions with a yes, it’s time to consider that doing less, and/or adding stress-reducing techniques to your daily life may actually be the key to better results in your fitness endeavors. If you still aren’t convinced, try conducting a little experiment.

Give it just one week. For one week, limit your workout sessions to 4x or less for no more than 1 hour. Choose 3 daily stress-reducing/mindfulness practices from the list below to do each day. (You may choose something not on the list too.) Now choose 3 of the weekly practices to do throughout the 7 days. (Possibly on the days you are not exercising) Set a bed time, yes a specific “lights out” time, just for this week, and do your absolute best to honor it.

Treat this experiment like a trending diet or cleanse that you’ve invested a large amount of money into. Be accountable, perhaps by telling friends and family members what you plan to do. Throughout the week notice how your body feels.

You may find it helpful to journal and keep track of subtle changes. At the end of the 7 days, you can decide whether to continue on for another week, or end it. You may very well find that less pushing, and more nourishing allows your body to return to it’s natural baseline, and waistline.

Daily stress reducing practices

• 5-10 minutes of guided deep breathing

• 5-10 minutes of guided meditation

• A brief 10+ minutes of restorative yoga or any restorative stretching upon waking or before bed

• 10+ minutes of journaling or creative expression (drawing, doodling, painting, etc)

• A short walk or relaxing swim

• 10+ minutes of listening to relaxing music, or sounds

• 10+ minutes of leisurely reading (unrelated to work or school)

• Enjoying a meal fully present without an electronic device or TV

Weekly stress reducing practices:

• A 20+ minute mind-body practice (For example: Yoga, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, etc.)

• A long walk, leisurely bike ride, skate, or another low intensity cardio activity outdoors

• 20+ minutes of learning something new entirely for pleasure/fun (There are so many classes and how-to’s available online, many free!)

• 20+ minutes of gardening, napping, or picnicking in nature

• 20+ minutes of personal uninterrupted creative time. Create anything. Embrace your inner artist fully.

• 20+ minutes of dancing. Any kind, any way.

• Pick an old movie that you love, get a snack you delight in, and enjoy.

• Get a massage (support local business!)

• Go get a manicure, pedicure, hair cut, or a new outfit. Indulge in some sort of pampering.

• Ask a friend you haven’t seen in a while out to dinner.


Cynthia Fowler is a certified personal trainer (NASM), corrective exercise specialist (NASM), registered vinyasa yoga teacher (RYT 200), certified Enhance fitness teacher, group exercise instructor (TRX, Indoor cycling, HIIT, SMR, etc), owner of FoundationUp Fitness, blogger, and health coach. Cynthia can be contacted through her website at or directly at


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the TERMS OF SERVICE. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. To report comments that you believe do not follow our guidelines, send us an email.