Too Stressed to Exercise?

Too Stressed to Exercise?

Last week, I made this social media post about stress and physical self-care:

The good news is that this week, Gabriella is on the mend and feeling back to her usual feisty self!

Today, I wanted to take a few minutes to flesh out just the last few sentence of my Instagram post, because they really matter.

“If consistency is something that you struggle with, it may be scary to downshift like this. But I tell clients all the time: downshifting is different from completely hitting the brakes.”

This point is so incredibly crucial to a physically and mentally healthy lifestyle.

For people who are on a weight loss (or weight loss maintenance) journey, taking time to respond to life’s emergencies feels an awful lot like quitting. And for people who have had issues with “falling off the wagon” of healthy living and over and over, recalibrating can feel like a red flag… instead of a healthy response to life.

So let’s look at four things you can do next time your life goes into emergency mode, to maintain the feeling of forward momentum even when you’re too stressed to exercise

Move in a Way that Feels Good

Normally, exercise is de-stressing. Or, at the very least, it’s a “good” stress.

But when you’re totally stressed out to the max – especially if you’re missing sleep – exercise is unfortunately interpreted by your body as just more stress.

To counteract this effect, I recommend only moving in ways that feel genuinely good to you during times of high stress. Restorative exercise (meaning, it’s truly de-stressing) includes:

  • Walking, or another low-intensity form of cardio that is repetitive and soothing (depending on your fitness level, this could also include running or biking or something similar)
  • Gentle yoga
  • Tai Chi or QiGong
  • Something outdoors and relaxing, like paddleboarding or kayaking

Last week when Gabriella was sick, my sleep and my nerves were pretty shattered by Day 4. I hired a sitter and went for a walk one morning. I literally just walked to our local Starbucks, got a latte, and then sat on a bench, and then I walked the long way back. It was so healing to make time for that gentle movement, but there’s no way I could have done running or strength training that day.

So when you’re too stressed to exercise, it’s not the time to set any personal records with exercise, or try to “exercise off” the stress.

Establish Some Food Ground Rules (Temporarily)

This is very important if you’ve struggled with big ups and downs in your eating.

It may not be the right time to be logging every meal in MyFitnessPal, but there are ways that you can find peace of mind around your food choices without being time-consumingly specific.

  • Keep in mind that a big caloric deficit is stressful on the body, just like too much exercise. If you’re missing a lot of sleep and are emotionally stressed, temporarily switch back to “maintenance mode” for your diet, instead of aiming for weight loss goals.
  • Focus on food quality. If you’re eating at a hospital cafeteria, you can make choices like emphasizing protein and vegetables and fruit, even if you can’t eat the way you normally could.
  • Eat normally – eat real, balanced, “healthy” meals at normal times, even if you don’t feel hungry. You may not feel hungry, but your body is keeping score, and your appetite may come back with a vengeance once you’ve skipped too many real meals or snacks.
  • Set ground rules to prevent yourself from returning to food as an emotional crutch. If you know that you’re prone to binge on sugar when you’re stressed, avoiding a sugar binge is far more important than tracking all your food in MyFitnessPal, for example. Set up your home environment to help you make the choices that your higher self really wants you to make. This may mean clearing your house of sugar until the stressful period is over.

Discern the Nature of the Crisis

Ask yourself: how long is this going to last?

The shorter the issue, the better it is to press “pause” and just resume when you can.

The longer the stressful period potentially could last, the more you need to recalibrate your habits and create a “new normal.”

This “new normal” is important because, as I’ve told many clients, you matter too! Your physical, mental, and emotional health are highly valuable. Taking care of yourself will help you handle a long-term crisis better than if you remain in nonstop crisis-management mode. Your physical health is an enormous asset to your life, and it’s worth it to keep investing in it.

Keep a Realistic Perspective

Finally, if you’re on a weight loss or healthy lifestyle journey and suddenly – boom – a life crisis hits, it can be a familiar, sinking feeling. “I’ve made all this progress, only to lose it now. Again.”

This is understandable. But I encourage you to maintain a realistic, balanced perspective. One day of poor eating and no exercise will make almost no difference to your health. Two days will make an insignificant, negligible difference. The same goes for three days. Once you’re approaching a week, perhaps you will start making a dent in your progress. But just a dent.

The only way you will really tank your efforts is if you go into full weeks of habit reversal. This is what we want to avoid.

But if you’re dealing with something highly temporary, you can reassure yourself with these thoughts:

  • This will pass.
  • I had the strength to make these new habits, and I still have the strength to reinforce them once this is over.
  • I’m just downshifting, I’m not coming to a full stop.
  • I am capable of making healthy choices for myself in a challenging setting.
  • What can I do to feel good about my healthy choices right now?

Also, a friendly reminder (if you are on a weight loss journey) that water weight is very quickly lost and gained, but real fat loss and gain is very slow. So if you were losing about a pound a week and then you step on the scale after a busy weekend and you are up three pounds, don’t panic. It will fall back off once you resume the normal way you eat and exercise, because your natural body processes will automatically shed the excess water. You did not “gain weight” (in anything other than the literal sense) in only one weekend.

It’s so important to cut yourself some slack and keep your focus on the big picture.

Downshifting doesn’t have to lead to quitting. You are in control of the next steps!