October 6th, 2011 by Digestive Detective
Your workout doesn't matter.
That's right, you read that correctly. You're probably wondering why an "exercise guy" and personal trainer would dare utter those words. Please allow me to explain.
I've been in the fitness industry for over 11 years and have worked with dozens of clients. I've worked in large health club facilities and watched hundreds of members make there way through their workouts day after day, week after week, month after month. Through those experiences I have been witness to a phenomenon that is far too common: people hitting the gym and getting in their workouts but not seeing an ounce of change. Maybe you've witnessed this with your own eyes - you see that same guy or gal every time you go to the gym, they always appear to be working hard, and yet they don't look any different despite their efforts. Perhaps you've not only seen this example in someone else, but have experienced it yourself. Allow me to shed some light on the situation and expand upon my earlier declaration.
Your Workout Doesn't Matter if You Don't Manage Stress
Stress is all around us and is an inevitable part of our fast-paced, daily lives. As I discussed in my blog on chronic stress, stress can come in many forms: physical, nutritional, mental/emotional, environmental/chemical. For the purposes of this blog, we'll limit the concept of stress to mental/emotional. If your body (and most of ours is) is under constant stress both internally and externally, your workout will not help you lose weight or create the results you seek; in fact, it may do the exact opposite. Exercise itself is a stressor, albeit a positive one, but if your body is already on stress overload with cortisol levels out of balance and your adrenal glands beleaguered, then pushing through intense exercise sessions will only exacerbate the problem. Exercise naturally elevates cortisol levels after a period of time (usually within 40 minutes) in response to the demand you place upon the body. Again, this isn't necessarily a bad thing if your adrenal glands are functioning at optimal levels, but if they are worn out from stress, then you may be doing more harm then good. Continual, imbalanced cortisol to DHEA levels place a burden on your metabolic pathways which can result in altered thyroid function and inefficient carbohydrate metabolism (making weight loss and fat distribution changes very difficult).
The best thing you can do if you are highly stressed is to 1) identify, remove or manage the primary stressors in your life and 2) incorporate stress reduction techniques such as yoga, meditation (which has been found in studies to lower blood cortisol levels) or deep breathing.
Your Workout Doesn't Matter if You Don't Get Proper Sleep
Sleep is by far the most overlooked element in achieving an ideal weight and overall health. Busting your butt in the gym won't make much difference if you're not sleeping enough or don't address sleep issues. Many of my clients have problems sleeping but usually brush them off and don't understand the implications that a lack of solid, restorative sleep can have on their bodies. When we sleep, our bodies are essentially in "repair mode." We have a number of processes happening during rest that help sure up our immune system, repair damaged muscle tissue (vital when trying to "tone up" and enhance lean muscle) and again re-balance our adrenal glands. Not getting good, quality sleep further beats up on the poor adrenal glands and results in the same effects as I've already mentioned (ie lack of sleep is a major stressor on the body!). The main sleep problems that most people encounter fall into one of two (or both) categories: 1) trouble falling asleep 2) trouble staying asleep
Trouble falling asleep is often the result of our frenetic lifestyles. Picture this scenario: Rush home from work. Hurry to fix a quick meal that you scarf down while doing chores around the house. Help the kids with homework and then get them ready for bed. Finish up work emails. Brush your teeth and jump into bed only to lay there with your mind spinning and eyes wide open. Sound familiar? With zero downtime to relax, your chances of falling asleep are slim. Part of this relates to psychology, the other, even more important part, relates to physiology.
From a psychological perspective, not "breaking" from the worries, stresses and thoughts of the day can keep your mind actively engaged with thoughts of to-do lists and obligations swirling around your head. In order to release the mental tension, consider using a journal to get your thoughts out and plan for the next day. To aid in the physiological side of falling asleep, increase your natural melatonin production. Melatonin is a hormone that helps prepare the body for sleep - you may have even taken a form of supplemental melatonin at some point. Rather than spending the money on the pill form, increase your internal melatonin production by dimming the lights in the evening prior to bed (which triggers the release of melatonin), and make your bedroom as dark as possible (I use heavy black curtains to block all outside light).
Trouble staying asleep may stem from internal stress in the body. Two things may be the culprit in this scenario: 1) carbohydrate intake prior to sleep 2) possible pathogens.
When you consume a large amount of carbohydrates, your blood glucose levels rise and in response, your pancreas releases insulin to lower those levels and stabilize blood sugar. If you consume a large quantity of carbohydrates, especially quick-digesting carbs such as sugars and grains, prior to bed, your body will release a large amount of insulin while you sleep which at some point of the night will drop your blood sugar levels. Because of the significant surge of insulin in response to the high carb intake, your blood sugar will drop dramatically signaling a stress to the body that you must eat, thereby waking you up.
Pathogens in the form of bacterial, parasitic and fungal infections in the gut can also trigger sleep disturbances. The activity of these microorganisms is often highest at night, which in turn can cause your body to react and be awakened. If you experience this frequently and have other signs such as intermittent or chronic diarrhea, constipation, or other digestive issues, consider being tested to identify if you are suffering from an infestation of pathogens.
Your Workout Doesn't Matter if You Have Poor Nutritional Habits
This one seems like a no-brainer but bears repeating - YOUR WORKOUT DOESN'T MATTER IF YOUR DIET SUCKS. You can exercise all you want, but if you don't fuel your body with the right food, then you're wasting your time. You will not lose weight. You will not maintain your weight. You will not have good energy. You will not feel well or function at an optimal level each day. It sounds pretty basic, but if you keep it simple and focus on eating real, whole foods, avoid processed junk, balance your meals, avoid heavy carbs/grains and eliminate sugar, you will lose weight and support your body. You don't have to be a gourmet chef. Find simple recipes like those on our site or in our ebook Fit Fast Food, and plan ahead to prepare your meals so that you won't stray from healthy intentions.
Nutrition is simply one piece of the puzzle. Remember, even if you "think" you are eating well, chances are you might be off the mark. I've had client after client tell me that they "know what to do" with there diet. My question in response is always, "Ok, then why aren't you doing it?" Mindset, motivation and purpose are at the root cause of most individuals challenges when it comes to food. It takes a true effort to step back, really examine your habits, and develop the discipline to adopt healthy habits. Again, you don't have to be perfect, but you do need to be willing to stay committed to being healthy in all areas of your life. If you feel you are spot on with your nutrition and still don't see the changes you desire, then consider the words of my friend Sean Croxton at Underground Wellness who sums it up best:
There’s a sign on the wall at my gym that says, “You can’t exercise your way out of a bad diet”.
True, indeed. But you also can’t:
- eat your way out of late nights in front of the TV or computer
- eat your way out of a high-stress lifestyle
- eat your way out of a lack of connection with the Earth
- eat your way out of lack of sunlight
- eat your way out of a predominance of negative thoughts running through your head
- eat your way out of having no purpose in life
Consider all these things when you become frustrated by the lack of change on the scale or feel the frustration of banging your proverbial head against the wall with your workouts. If you plateau or see no change at all, reexamine the entirety of your lifestyle and find places where you can make changes outside of the gym, so that you'll begin to see changes inside the gym.