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How Stress Can Stunt Fitness Progress (And What To Do About It)

February 05, 20246 min read

According to the American Psychological Association, chronic stress is not only on the rise but is actually becoming a public health crisis.

Now, I’m no psychologist or psychiatrist, but I’d be a terrible trainer and coach if I didn’t address stress, because stress is one of the biggest roadblocks for people when it comes to their health and fitness success. Ask them why they quit going to the gym, or why they stopped tracking their food intake, or why they aren’t sleeping well to properly recover. More often than not, they’ll tell you about some form of stress they’re facing.

Not all stress is bad, though. Stress is our body’s natural reaction to potentially harmful situations- a chemical reaction known as “fight-or-flight.” Our bodies were designed to handle short bouts of stress to keep us productive and out of harm’s way (known as eustress). They were not, however, designed for chronic harmful stress (known as distress).


how chronic stress affects health and performance

Credit: National Institutes of Health


When our body is under this stress reaction for prolonged periods of time, it begins to, quite literally, wear down, and attacks every facet of our wellbeing: emotional, mental, social, spiritual, and eventually physical. Research shows that chronic stress can influence almost every system and cell in the body.

Statistically speaking, Americans are some of the most stressed people in the world. Among them, younger Americans between ages 15-49 are leading the pack.


What are some warning signs or symptoms of unhealthy stress?

  • Problems sleeping, insomnia, can’t “turn brain off”

  • Fatigue, decreased energy

  • Lack of motivation, poor focus, procrastination

  • Anxiety, restlessness

  • Irritability, social withdrawal, depression, anger

  • Changes in appetite

  • Changes in menstruation

  • Decreased (or change in) sex drive, erectile dysfunction

  • Substance abuse, alcohol abuse

  • Headaches

  • Chest pain and/or tightness

  • Feeling faint or dizzy

  • Gastrointestinal issues (i.e. upset stomach, indigestion, diarrhea)

  • More frequent illness

  • Muscular tension


How does chronic stress affect our body over time?

  • Excess stress hormones mean added physical stress on the heart.

  • Increase in blood pressure means added stress on blood vessels.

  • The risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity is significantly increased.

  • Immunity suffers- enter chronic inflammation, autoimmune disorders, and more frequent illness.

  • Digestive function suffers- enter acid reflux, stomach ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, and the like.

  • Structural, functional, and connectivity changes in the brain negatively affect focus and attention, cognition, learning new things, and moods (i.e. depression, anxiety).

  • Muscular tension can lead to imbalances, tightness, and ultimately subsequent injury.

  • The body can become more sensitive to pain- enter chronic pain.

  • Skin and hair problems can manifest, such as eczema, hair loss, and brittle nails.

So, what can we do to avoid falling victim to chronic stress?

  1. Get enough sleep. I cannot stress this one enough. When you’re rested, your brain makes better decisions, reacts better, and is more productive to cope with daily stressors that otherwise add up.

  2. Eat a healthy, balanced diet. Again, cannot stress this one enough either. You are and will be what you eat. What you put in your body is what you can expect of it.

  3. Engage in regular physical exercise. Once you get sleep and diet down, make it a point to move more.

  4. Avoid tobacco use, excessive caffeine, and alcohol. None of these will benefit you, so don’t use them as an unhealthy means to deal with stress.

  5. Prioritize time to yourself for hobbies, reading, a creative outlet, the gym, prayer/meditation/quiet time, something. You have to make time to get away from all the noise for sanity’s sake. If you think you don’t need it, it’s because you’ve gone too long without it. I say that because I’m that person. I literally forget what it’s like to just be, so then I don’t think I need it, but just because you’re functional doesn’t mean you’re operating at your highest level.
    And if you don’t know what that is, point made. “But I don’t have time…”
    Schedule it. What doesn’t get scheduled doesn’t get done.

  6. Have your alone time, but stay social and don’t isolate yourself. Connect with people the rest of the time. And I don’t mean on social media- do things in real life!

  7. Find a healthy balance between the things you’re juggling in life while cutting out the unnecessary. Say no to a few extra things to make room for more healthy yeses.

  8. Filter input (meaning, what you’re feeding your mind, your eyes, your spirit, your body, your ears, etc.), and create a better environment for yourself, because we end up slaves to our environment. If your environment is stressful, you’ll be stressed. So, unfollow some people and pages- follow new ones. Skip the trash TV shows that get you suspecting things about your friends and spouse- read an educational book. Set boundaries with toxic people and other influences- get around more positive and successful people. Avoid tempting food situations that cause you regret binging later- go for a walk or something instead. You have to take control of your “glass” and what’s getting poured into it.

  9. Have a game plan when you know what triggers your stress.

  10. Consider seeking professional help if stress is interfering with daily life. Sure, all these other things can make a huge difference, but sometimes outside professional help is necessary.

Mind over matter, most of the time. Again, seek professional help if needed. Medication is necessary sometimes, but sometimes it only masks important signals of strain on your body and psyche. I’m not telling anyone not to take medication- that’s your choice between you and your physician. However, consider trying a few things regarding lifestyle improvement before automatically resorting to medication when it may not actually be necessary.

And our environment plays a huge role, as I said before. But sometimes, it’s us.

Getting smart about stress is the key to managing it. Do you realize that most stress actually comes from our thoughts regarding our circumstances and how we perceive their effect on us, rather than the actual circumstances themselves? This is why two different people can react completely differently to the same situation, circumstance, or stimulus. Their mindset determines the outcome. Don’t allow emotions to become belief because what you believe becomes your reality.

Here’s a tough pill to swallow… Anxiety is often rooted in things we know we should be doing but we aren’t doing (be it due to procrastination, distraction, analysis paralysis, pure laziness, whatever). So, if like me, you tend to experience anxiety, take that alone time we talked about before, and ask yourself if there’s something you know you should be doing that you’re not. Oftentimes, the magic is in the work we’ve been avoiding.

Know the difference between stimulation and stress. Stimulation is good and keeps us productive (again, eustress), while too much negative stress is bad for our health (that’s the distress).

When it comes to getting healthy, too often people try to take on too much at once. They get overwhelmed, distressed, and ultimately end up worse off than they were before. Don’t make yourself sick trying to get healthy. That’s counterproductive. Adherence and consistency always win.

Keep shining.

Your trainer & coach,



More information:

Stress in America- Generation Z (American Psychological Association, Oct 2018)

5 Things You Should Know About Stress PDF (National Institute of Mental Health)

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Kandis Joubert

Kandis Joubert is a NASM-certified personal trainer and nutrition coach, specializing in corrective exercise and fitness nutrition.

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