According to the research I've examined, stress is a fat trigger. I was certain that my challenge to regain and take full control of my health would be mostly physical in nature and just a little mental/emotional/spiritual only thirteen months ago. Now, I've come to believe that it is more or less 50/50 split. Why? Because cortisol sends the signal to our bodies to store fat. When we are stressed, the cortisol levels in our bodies elevate and activate fat programs that cause weight gain. Humans miraculously evolved to store fat when certain conditions arise, namely starvation and cold. (Fat is actually and acronym for famine and temperature.) When our ancestors' bodies experienced these stresses, a signal was sent to them to store as much fat as possible. This was great for us because they were able to survive and reproduce. I am certainly glad to be here, but the majority of the world, myself included, no longer experiences the stresses of famine or cold. Unfortunately, my body doesn't know the difference between every day stresses caused by the daily grind and prehistoric signals to store energy when cold or famine occurs. This is why I believe healthy, sustainable weight loss is not solely about what and how much we eat. As you can see, factors like stress also come into play.
I've developed my own MEAL plan to deal with stress and lose weight. It is as follows:
Meditate (downshift every day)
Exercise (move frequently throughout the day)
Adventure (add some spice to life through travel and micro adventures)
Life/Work Balance (make time for family, friends, service, and spirituality)
Meditation has been my best tool for dealing with stress. After practicing breath meditation first thing every morning for more than a year, I've come to realize that I suffer from an undiagnosed issue with anger. This mental condition has crippled me in many ways for much of my life, and its relevance to weight loss is that anger has elevated my stress. In the absence of being able to afford clinical data and an official diagnosis, I only have my own observations. My best guess is that meditation has made me about 50% more patient, a lot less angry, and much more forgiving. The results have been a substantial reduction in the daily amount stress I experience. I believe this deserves some of the credit for my most recent loss of weight. Don't get me wrong! I'm no saint and still have issues, but I at least now recognize them. After stewing over something hurtful and mean that someone said, I recognize the situation and stop to deal with the irritating thoughts. It might take fifteen rounds of remembering that getting worked up is useless, vowing not to repeat it, and breathing to calm myself before I make real progress. But, hey, that's a lot better than what I was doing before by continuously wrestling with irritating thoughts over weeks and months.
Exercise has become one of my greatest joys in life. I look forward to it because afterwards I usually feel super good; in fact, I often find myself in some of the best spirits I've been in all day. In the journal The Scientific American an article proposed that exercise "... can inhibit the release of inhibitory transmitters and increase the release of dopamine, making strenuous physical exercise more pleasurable. Endogenous opioid production has been shown to occur during the runner's high in humans after intense exercise." I personally feel that I gain a lot from exercise. Not only do I get the benefit of a calorie burn from it, but also I believe that I get rid of a whole lot of stress.
Adventure has always been something I've craved. When I've neglected to fill my "good-life bucket" with adventure, I've spent ridiculous amounts of time recursively daydreaming about it, which has caused me more stress. But how does a husband, father, educator, and part-time organic farmer find the time or resources for adventure? My answer has been to plan bimonthly micro adventures. (I will write down my thoughts about this in my next blog, as it is a subject that needs it's own space.) For now, let's just say that when I travel to visit family, I research and plan a cycling adventure for wherever I happen to be. The effect of this strategy has netted me some incredible dividends of peace, calm, and stress reduction.
Life/Work Balance is an area in my life where I'm currently struggling, and it's causing me some major stress. This is one situation where I will beg you to do as I say and not as I do. Please know, however, that I'm making this a priority in the coming year after I've fulfilled some obligations to which I'm committed. Let's just say there's an insane amount of research in support of the notion that those who put family first are among the happiest, longest-lived on earth. One very practical explanation is as simple as that when bad stuff happens, and it inevitably will, you have the built in support network of your family, which really reduces stress in these trying moments. I also feel that other crucial factors come into play. Maybe I'm just a family-oriented person, but many of my best memories, both past and present, are shared with family. Unfortunately, I've allowed some aspects of our American culture’s advertised prescriptions for happiness to command too much of my attention. So, no more materialism! This standard American prescription for happiness hasn't worked at all, caused me an enormous amount of worry, and needs to stop. I see this as the last part of my MEAL plan to eliminate stress and improve my overall well-being.