Is the gym making you fat?
The gym is great for: Getting fit and helping you burn more energy
The gym is not great for: Making exercise a chore. Making you overdo it, increasing the likelihood of injury. Eating into valuable snooze time. Making you repeat boring movements.
Each of these elements is a common denominator of the gym, and each of them is a form of a physical or mental stress. And this is what is making us fat. Over a period of time, chronic stress (that is -prolonged over a period of time) stress makes us build up a tolerance to hormones and kicks our bodies out of balance. To understand this, I've listed what happens to our bodies during a "simple, short-term" stress response versus "prolonged" stress...
Scenario A. THE SIMPLE, SHORT-TERM STRESS RESPONSE:
1. Encounter a stress - e.g. We've been on the treadmill for 22 minutes, we now feel exhausted but have 8 minutes hard incline to go.
2. The hypothalamus at the base of the brain sends signals to the adrenal glands next to the kidneys.
3. A surge of hormones are released - principally cortisol (the key stress hormone) and adrenaline: Adrenaline boosts energy supply across the body, whilst cortisol increases glucose in the bloodstream and hinders bodily functions that would not be useful in a "normal" stressful situation, e.g. many immune, digestive and reproductive responses.
4. The adrenaline and cortisol give us the energy to finish our workout with a bang.
5. We get off the treadmill with another 45 minutes until our first meeting. We stretch gently and take deep breaths before taking a long warm shower and get dressed.
6. Throughout this time our cortisol and adrenal levels have returned to their baseline as our stress leaves the body. If we have time for a nice breakfast before we get into the office, our bodies will welcome the nourishment.
But what happens when we have to dash from the gym straight to a meeting?
Scenario B. AN ONGOING STRESS RESPONSE:
5. We jump off the treadmill with 12 minutes until our 9 a.m. meeting (no time to stretch), dash to the changing room and jump into a cold shower (no time for it to heat up), before dressing (still mostly dripping from shower and also possible sweat), sprinting next door to grab coffee (luckily no queue as this is much needed) and jog-walk to the office dodging people traffic, arriving into the meeting at 9:03 a.m. It'st just started but you haven't yet looked at the agenda...
6. There wasn't a moment for the stress to be removed, so cortisol is still swimming in the bloodstream and our bodily functions are still impeded. The croissant in the corner may be a welcome relief at 10 a.m. but if you've not calmed down by then you won't be digesting it until lunch...
This prolonged stress is what can make us store fat (see this blog post on Stress).
Although Scenario B. may be an exaggeration, I know that it's a very realistic impression of many peoples' morning routine. There is no avoiding stressful moment, but if we can start to identify these moments, we can use some key techniques to reduce or even to eliminate their impact on our health