How You Cope With Stress May Be Hindering Your Fitness Progress

By Anastasia Pollock

It’s no secret that chronic stress doesn’t do us any favors—least of all when it comes to our fitness.

Not only does it contribute to widespread inflammation and fat retention, and increases in catabolic hormones that break down those hard-earned muscle gains, it also saps your energy, resolve, and mental health. In short, chronic stress makes reaching your fitness goals feel almost impossible.

How Do You Deal with Stress?

coping-strategies-wine-electronics-247x370Chronic stress is such an affront to our fitness progress—and sanity, for that matter—that de-stressing is vital to our ability to reach our fitness goals. In fact, research from the University of Kentucky suggests that practicing effective stress management techniques can contribute to improvements in body composition.” 1

However, many women don’t realize that the very things we do to help us to cope with stress can oftentimes work against our fitness goals. In these instances, when you’re feeling like you’re pretty committed to your goals, but you’re not seeing a lot of progress, assessing how you are dealing with life stresses can help you gain some perspective. Your coping strategies might need an adjustment.

The “coping strategies,” I’m referring to are alcohol, tobacco, as well as the sugar, fat, and salt that are quintessential of emotional and stress eating. (We’ll save other unhealthy ways of coping for another time.) These three stress busters all have something in common: They cause a release of neurotransmitters in the brain that help you to feel good (at least in the moment) and encourage you to repeat the behavior over and over again, in hopes of achieving the same effect. This pattern becomes wired in the brain, and eventually the brain learns to depend on that substance to cope with stress and to get back to “baseline.” 2,3,4,5

coping-strategies-cookies-350x350Please understand, I am not saying that enjoying a sweet treat or a cocktail every once in a while is a problem (smoking is another issue entirely) . Indulging becomes a problem, however, when any of these is your way of coping with stress. That is when “every once in a while” becomes much more regular. If you occasionally have one drink with a friend, or the random cupcake, you are likely not going to have an issue in terms of your fitness goals. However, if you find that you need alcohol in order to unwind after a long day, need something sweet to deal with stress, or crave that cigarette because it is 3 p.m., it has likely become a way of coping for you.

This is slippery slope, and not just in terms of fitness. For example, many of my clients have found that unwinding with a glass of wine a few times per week can easily escalate, without them realizing it, to one or more drinks every day.

While de-stressing is generally beneficial to your physical and mental health, becoming dependent on any substance to cope is ultimately not beneficial.

When we rely too much on substances of any kind to unwind, we are teaching our brains to rely on that substance instead of putting in the work to engage the body’s own ability to calm itself, which can result in increased anxiety and stress.

To determine if your methods of coping with stress are standing between you and your goals, it’s very important to start by taking a good look at your relationship with the substances and foods you consume. Awareness is key here. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Is there something I am using or consuming that helps me to deal with stress or to feel good, calm, or social?
  • How often am I consuming or using ___________ (fill in the blank)?
  • Could my consumption of this substance be getting in the way of any of my goals? (For example: am I consuming excess calories? Am I replacing nutrient-rich foods in with drinks or a sugary treat? Is this substance affecting my sleep quality?
  • If I imagine not having that substance (cigarette, drink, cookie, etc.) what’s my immediate reaction?

coping-strategies-wine-450x300Once you have asked yourself these questions, purposely skip having that thing—particularly at the usual time of day you have it, the social setting in which you consume it, or when you are feeling stressed or emotional—and notice how you respond. How are your stress levels? How do you feel, both emotionally and physically? Do you have any cravings?

If you find that it is difficult to relax, socialize, sleep, or feel good, it may be worth implementing alternative coping strategies.

If you find that you are at a loss for how to decrease your use of substances for coping, a mental health professional can be a great resource to help you to get started.

A Healthier Way to De-Stress

Here are two of my favorite skills that focus on mindfulness and awareness. I personally use them, and teach them to clients as well. They are easy skills you can practice almost anywhere, at any time you’re in need of a little stress relief. Instead of reaching for a drink (or a treat, or a cigarette…) spend a few minutes practicing one of these skills.

Mindful Breathing

Simply notice your breath and purposely track the feeling of inhaling and exhaling. Notice the rise and fall of your chest and abdomen with each breath. After you do this a few times, take a slightly deeper, but still comfortable breath. If your mind gets distracted, gently redirect your attention back to your breath. Do this exercise for just five minutes (you can set a timer on your phone) and gradually increase the time each time you practice.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Starting with your feet, tense each muscle group, one at a time, before moving onto the next one (i.e. feet, then legs, moving upward to the top of your head). Hold the tension until it is almost uncomfortable, and then release. Notice how your body feels as you release the tension contained in each muscle group. Take your time doing this.

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About the author:  Anastasia Pollock

Anastasia Pollock, LCMHC is a licensed psychotherapist who practices in Salt Lake City, Utah. She has 12 years experience in the mental health field and has specialized in treating trauma, women’s issues, and substance abuse. She is an avid runner and also enjoys lifting heavy things. Learn more about Anastasia on her website.


  1. Webber KH, Casey EM, Mayes L, Katsumata Y, Mellin L. A comparison of a behavioral weight loss program to a stress management program: A pilot randomized controlled trial. Nutrition. 2016;7-8:904 - 909.
  2. Singh M. Mood, food, and obesity. Frontiers in Psychology. 2014;5:925.
  3. Benton D, Donohoe RT. The effects of nutrients on mood. Public Health Nutr. 1999 Sept;2(3A):403-0
  4. Mercer ME, Holder MD. Food cravings, endogenous opioid peptides, and food intake: a review. Appetite. 1997 Dec;29(3):325-52.
  5. Spangler R, Wittkowski KM, Goddard NL, Avena NM, Hoebel BG, Leibowitz SF. Opiate-like effects of sugar on gene expression in reward areas of the rat brain. Brain Res Mol Brain Res. 2004 May 19;124(2):134-42

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