Stress Fat. Yes, It's A Thing.

Stress fat. Yes, It’s a thing.

To my ladies over forty:

Here’s the simple, hard truth that we may not want to face:

We are older now, and what used to work doesn’t anymore.?

I admit I have had days where I struggle with aging. I mean, who likes wrinkles, saggy skin, low energy, age spots, hormonal and physical changes that come with aging? 

Getting older isn’t all bad, however.In fact, it can be quite wonderful. If you are over 40 and reading this, chances are you would never want to go back to being 20 again, right?

Why? Because there is a certain joy that life experience gives you. As they say, wisdom is worth its weight in gold.?

The physical and hormonal changes, well, they leave much to be desired. I’m always surprised as I age that no one has ever told me what to expect. I suppose the stigma of talking about our “hormones” has plagued women since the beginning of time, but I’m glad that times are changing because knowledge is power.

If we learn to listen to our bodies, let go of stress, and make a few changes, we can make huge impacts not only on how we look, but more importantly, how we feel.

Many women complain of that dreaded “belly bulge” after they hit forty. They also seem to experience this hard-to-get-rid-of ten pounds that linger around like an unwanted house guest. Some women give up and put on even more weight when doctors have told them, “it’s all downhill after 40” or “there is nothing you can do about the menopause belly!”


Why would we ever want to think those kinds of limiting thoughts? Our brain is the most powerful muscle in our body, and I firmly believe that what we tell ourselves becomes our reality. 

So, let me share with you some hope for changing those limiting beliefs.

Let’s discuss stress, a.k.a. “Cortisol,” and its relationship with our metabolism.

Cortisol is the fight or flight hormone beneficial when running away from a charging tiger or, let’s say, a would-be attacker in today’s world. When in a state of fight or flight, we need cortisol to deliver energy to our brain and muscles.

When cortisol is released, fat cells are signaled to deposit more fat into our bloodstreams, liver cells to produce glucose, and muscle cells to break down protein to supply amino acids.  This metabolic process gives us the energy we need in this “stressful” situation.

Cortisol is not a “bad” hormone and can be quite useful to our bodies, but unless there is a tiger ready to eat you or an attacker ready to steal your purse, too much of a good thing is, well, too much of a good thing.

Cortisol and its influence on our body weight is complex. As our main stress hormone, cortisol is secreted by the adrenal glands. It regulates our energy stores by increasing blood sugar levels when needed. It also controls inflammation, regulates blood pressure, and influences our sleep/wake cycles.

During our “mid-life,” studies show that we tend to have higher stress levels. We have a lot more responsibility, and things seem to be much more “stressful” than in our younger years. Ask any 40+ person, and most likely, they will tell you that life is very “stressful.”

When “stressed,” we tend to crave more comfort foods, exercise less, and have trouble sleeping. All of these factors can lead to weight gain. During periods of chronic stress, both cortisol and insulin levels increase, which signals our fat cells to store as much fat as possible. 

This accumulation of body fat is especially distributed to the abdominal, or belly, region a.k.a. “the belly bulge.”  This belly bulge is sometimes called “stress fat.” From a logical or scientific perspective, this stress fat would have a protective/helpful effect because fat stored in the abdominal region could be delivered to the bloodstream and tissues faster than fat stored in other regions, such as the thighs and buttocks.

So, are our bodies trying to help us??

Umm, No thanks! That is not the kind of help that I am looking for! In all seriousness, that isn’t even the tip of the iceberg! There is more!

The adrenals cannot make cortisol without progesterone. The more Cortisol they are required to make, the less progesterone will be available to balance estrogen and testosterone.

Excess estrogen often leads to weight gain without progesterone’s balancing effects, usually in the body’s central fat stores – the belly.

In our 20s and 30s, our bodies are great at buffering stress because we have optimal progesterone levels, but as we age, those levels lower, and we lose that buffer.

Women going perimenopausal or in menopause have adrenal glands that are not as efficient at producing progesterone and other hormones, especially if they are pumping out cortisol all the time. 

All this to say, it could be that your “being stressed” all the time is slowing down your metabolism and giving you that belly bulge. The belly bulge isn’t even that big of a deal when you realize that elevated cortisol levels can lead to insulin resistance, obesity, and diabetes.

So, you might be saying, “Kerri, I’m not all that stressed!” You may not realize this, but how you exercise might also be adding to your high cortisol levels.

We know that exercise is good for us, right? Yes, it is, but it also creates stress on the body.

Not just the physical stress, but our adrenals increase their production of cortisol to keep energy levels up. In our 20s and 30s, high-intensity cardio workouts were not a problem, but after 40, our adrenal glands can’t keep up. Prolonged, high-intensity cardio workouts can make matters worse for women after 40. 

We have to focus on reducing stress in our lives.

  1. Let that?go! Get rid of anything that brings you stress. You won’t be able to let go of some things in your life, but you can choose to stop worrying about them. If you can change it, change it. If you can’t, accept it.
  2. Effective strength workouts. Women over 40 need to train smart! Add weight training to your yoga or Pilates practice. More muscle mass means you will burn more calories during the day, not just during your workout. Clearly, we need to balance the benefits of exercise with the potential costs of elevated stress and cortisol levels. We need to exercise for hormonal balance as well as fitness.
  3. More cardio/high-intensity workouts are not the answer. Short, interval cardio workouts are better because they stimulate less cortisol production than longer endurance workouts.
  4. Get more sleep. Chronic, moderate sleep deprivation causes cortisol levels to remain high. You must get 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep every single night. Put the phone down, create a bedtime routine, and remember that not getting good sleep makes your metabolism slow down.
  5. Just MOVE more. Add more movement to your day. Getting outside and walking for 20-30 minutes every day will help you relieve stress, burn calories, and increase your metabolism. Don’t have time? Get creative here. Each time you park your car, choose the spot furthest from the door if you sit all day to get up every hour and take a walk around the office. Just 5 minutes here and there will add up!
  6. Yoga & Meditation. One of the best ways to lower stress is through a 5-minute breathing or meditation practice. Square breathing is my favorite way to de-stress; it only takes 5 minutes.
  7. Rest. Rest days are just as important as your workout days. If your body is stressed (yes, even stressed from your workouts), it will slow down your metabolism to preserve body fat. Take a day off from all work, which includes emails and household chores. Schedule it with family and friends so you don’t have to pick up the kids from school or make dinner. I promise it sounds harder than it is to get the people in your life to help you. 🙂 This will change your life!
  8. Eat more plant protein. Research shows that eating animal protein could speed up muscle loss. Meat, wheat, and corn are acid-producing foods that can also stunt muscle-protein synthesis. Plant proteins have more soluble fiber to help lower insulin levels, store less fat, and make us feel fuller. Plant protein for the win!
  9. Stay hydrated. Hydrated bodies burn more calories. It’s as simple as that. Check out this awesome smoothie recipe to help you rev up your metabolism!

We can do this! Change is never easy, but I promise you it is worth it. As a fitness trainer for the last 19 years, I never thought I had to worry about my metabolism, but these last 6 years have taught me that age doesn’t discriminate.

If you are looking for fitness programs to support you in menopause, check out FAST and Metabolic Movements. If you are not a BYG Member and want to try my programs completely free, take the 7-day trial!

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