I spend hours and hours exercising and have lowered my food intake more than I can sustain. Why am I not losing weight while I’m practically killing myself?
Can I get an amen from those of you who avidly agreed to this statement at least once in their lifetime?
Before I actually dive into this rhetoric about the correlation between stress and weight loss, I just want to disclose that this highlight around these two entities will not resonate with everyone. Everyone’s journey is different. For the most part, people who lose weight don’t develop disordered lifestyle patterns around food or exercise and just abide by the caloric equation. Calories in < calories out = weight loss. It’s not quite as easy as pie since not every calorie is the same, but it’s a concrete consensus. No questioning against science.
Here’s an analysis of this 30-pounds-and-7-years-apart comparison:
- On the left, I ate whatever was in sight. White rice, French fries, movie theater popcorn, crunchy tuna rolls, chicken Parmesan, sunny side-up eggs, and cookie dough were just a handful of my favorite meals. I didn’t exercise at all, either. I vaguely remember this being the heaviest weight I’ve ever maintained. I lost a scant amount of weight before I took things really seriously, but it only took a few shots of myself like this to feel the utmost embarrassed I’ve felt in years.
- Seven years later, I am thirty pounds lighter and very well-experienced in the world of health and fitness. Only a year before, I chose to adopt a vegan lifestyle (I still have a ways to go with some clothing items), a diet with plenty of protein, healthy carbohydrates, fats, and most importantly, micronutrients, as well as a fitness regime with more weight training to build lean muscle. In fact, that year, I was around ten pounds lighter due to a stressful life in college combined with undereating and overexercising. I won’t post a photo of that time period, but you can probably look at a few previous articles such as this one if you do want to compare for yourself.
What inspired me to write this post is that just recently, I hit a serious obstacle. I wanted to lose a little bit of vanity pounds for my personal sake, and I had more trouble than ever. No matter how clean I ate or how much I exercised, the number on the scale kept going up. I tried the basics–increase the time and intensity of my workouts, decrease my food intake. Nothing worked. My weight either shot up or went down to my starting weight and refused to budge. By the time I researched hidden factors about plateaus and worked harder than ever, I had no energy whatsoever. My mood was always irritable and I felt hopelessly unmotivated to do anything fitness-related. Every time I looked in the mirror, I wanted to cry. I was so confused. Here my family members were on their health-grinds: they kept losing weight, their skin cleared up, and they were fitter and more dedicated than ever. I, on the other hand, would work harder than they did, and gain up to two pounds overnight. Even though it may have been water weight, muscle, or whatever, I couldn’t feel more discouraged.
It wasn’t until I moved into college when I no longer stopped caring. My month-long hiatus from intensive exercise was about to begin, as was the college craze. This Monday was my first rest day in quite some time–after a few miles of walking, I knew I seriously needed it. That night, my friends invited me to a potluck, and I was afraid of the tantalizing food that would be there. It’s a rest day, I needed to eat less. But right before hopping into my ride, I thought: Screw it. I’m already fat enough for my distaste, so if I’m going to get any fatter, I might as well eat all the yummy foods I restricted myself from, not push my body until it’s ready to dig its own grave, and stay up as late as I want to. And the moment I finally did that, I woke up the next morning with a stomach that was A) not remotely puffy, and B) even leaner than what I’ve seen in weeks.
What? Sleeping at nearly midnight with a stomach full of pasta and cookies? This doesn’t make any sense! But in a way, it did. Years and years of physical stress, and a month of even more physical/mental/emotional stress took my body in such a mode of shock that it no longer wanted to lose any more weight. Basically, it gave my temporary weight loss goal the middle finger and clung onto any remaining fat in sight. This plateau wasn’t just any ordinary bump in the road. It was a serious red flag–my exercise needed to be dialed down immediately. The moment everything finally clicked, I vowed to avoid any intentional intense physical exercise for the month of September in hopes that my period would come back. At this point, I knew that the only way to break a plateau was to change my routine. No more morning HIIT and lifting sessions. No more physical stress.
Fortunately, it’s bulking season right now, so I’m in a much better state than people who need to gain weight during a period when it’s expected to look fit and trim. Right now, it is pretty difficult not to run to the gym and perform a hundred burpees and lift my bodyweight in squat form, but that’s what my body doesn’t need right now. It will want to get back into resistance training, but not until it heals an entire organ system.
Now, I wouldn’t say that I’m currently undergoing metabolic damage, which is the physiological incapability to lose any more weight due to a prolonged process of over-training, calorie restriction, or any other forms of physical stress. If I were to experience metabolic damage, I would have done so MUCH longer ago. Even after cheat days where I’d let loose on all my favorite foods, I still lost all the weight afterwards. My metabolism wasn’t damaged enough to hold onto all the fat it could. But anyways, with that aside, I still think that my body needs a break, at least enough rest to prevent any possibility of undergoing metabolic damage. (On another note, I know that so many health and fitness influencers do not believe in the existence of metabolic damage. However, for the sake of this case, we’re going to assume that some kind of form of it does exist. Discussion about it will come another time.)
So far, the physical ease has been going well. I only start my days off with stretching, Pilates, or long walks on campus as of now. I still make sure I have a balanced breakfast and nutritious meals to follow, all while listening to my hunger cues mindfully. On the flip side, I cannot honestly say that I’m not afraid of gaining weight. It may happen, or I just may look leaner like I did yesterday morning. I really don’t know. But if you do believe that stress is eating you away, I suggest you look into what’s been going on in your life that makes you unhappy. It will be different for everyone. And be brutally honest with yourself.
Clear your thoughts. Don’t wear yourself out to the point where you feel even more stressed afterwards. Talk to a friend. Walk outside. De-clutter your space. Read any book you’d like. Listen to some music. Give yourself a warm shower. Overall, just take a break, even if it’s for a minute or two. You don’t have to treat yourself with food or exercise unless you know you need it. If you need anything BUT that, turn to something else.
Okay, I know that this post has been a long one, but before it ends, I want you to leave with this one single moral that I just learned the first night I moved in. One of my best friends whom I consider an angel in human-form told me this after I told her we should all go on a vacation together:
We don’t have to go on vacation. We’re already on vacation. Think about it. We live in the most sustainable and beautiful place in the state. We’re surrounded by the most amazing people who care about what we care about. We’ll be educated about incredible things, the world, and new things about ourselves. We left where we were born to come here. We’re here for a reason. There’s already so much joy around us.