- It’s easy to eat healthily and exercise regularly when life is quiet.
- When work gets busy and our stress levels rise, however, it’s often a different story.
- Your healthy lifestyle doesn’t need to go completely out the window when you’re stressed – a little bit of planning and a few minutes carved out here and there can have a huge impact.
- Equally, it’s totally OK if your body just needs to rest for a little while.
- Read more Live Well with Rachel here.
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How do I keep fit and healthy when I’m stressed? Normally I do different forms of exercise (yoga, running, weight lifting) 3-5 times a week and I eat healthily and I love it – it makes me feel great. But when I’m stressed and have lots of work on this goes out the window. I know this is probably the most important time for me to be eating well and exercising, but when I have a lot on at work and I’m working 55+ hours a week, plus working on an external qualification, it seems impossible. I eat either because I have to so will make something easy to eat while working, or I stress eat junk food because I don’t have the mental capacity to resist. Exercise drops to the bottom of my list because I’m so drained. How do I keep fit and healthy during these times?
– Stressed and Overstretched
Dear Stressed and Overstretched,
Well, this is a big mood – and entirely relatable. As a huge stress eater, I feel you.
Firstly, don’t beat yourself up. This is incredibly common.
“You’re not alone,” Sohee Lee, certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, Sports Nutritionist, and author of “Eat. Lift. Thrive.” told Insider. “It’s normal for people to sometimes feel less energized or motivated to work out and/or more inclined to reach for snacks when they’re tired or stressed.
“This is partly due to the effect that stress has on your energy and hunger levels (via your hormones), with the other more obvious reasons being you’re drained, tired, and short on time.”
People tend to go one of two ways when stress levels rise – while some lose their appetites and feel zero desire to eat, the rest of us feel an overwhelming need to shovel food into our faces. And keep shoveling.
We know it’s irrational. We know it’s mindless eating and we barely register the food. But we do it anyway, because on some level, food is a comfort.
And then more often than not, we feel terrible afterwards, and seek comfort in more food. And so the cycle continues.
I’ve found myself in this situation on more occasions than I can count, so I feel your pain on some level.
However, it’s interesting you say you sometimes eat “because you have to,” which suggests there are times where stress makes you lose your interest in food. You say you make something “easy to eat,” but there’s no reason that can’t also be something that’s nutritious.
How about apple slices and peanut butter, Greek yogurt and berries, or oatcakes with hummus as quick, easy snacks? If you don’t even have time to put those together, keep fruit or protein bars on hand (just make sure they’re good ones, as there are nourishing protein bars and those that are essentially glorified chocolate bars).
You can still make nutritious choices for your meals that are quick and easy, too – if you have five minutes in the morning, whizz up a smoothie (add things like Greek yogurt, nut butter, protein powder, and oats to make it more nutritionally balanced and filling than pure fruit), or prep some overnight oats before bed.
Of course in an ideal world we’d all bring packed lunches to work (which would take away the temptation to get a pack of cookies with that sandwich), and a great way to do this with minimal effort is simply to cook extra quantities of dinner and bring in the leftovers.
Speaking of dinner, I know how it feels to get home late, starving, and decide you’ll just have toast or a takeaway because you can’t be bothered to cook. But there may be a simpler, healthier solution.
“To make meal-prep even easier, I’d get a slow cooker,” sports nutritionist Scott Baptie told Insider.
“They’re a gem for people who don’t want to spend ages cooking – throw lots of tasty ingredients into the slow cooker, lid on, 8 hours later you’ve got a steaming pot of yummy goodness.
“They’re cheaper to run than an oven and you can make masses of portions to freeze for eating during the week,” says Baptie, who has an MSc in Applied Sports Nutrition and is a Certified Specialist in Fitness Nutrition (SFN).
If gaining weight is your worry, don’t beat yourself up about eating “junk food” from time to time – sure, it can sometimes be more calorific than more nutritious alternatives, but actually, there are often more calories in salads than sandwiches anyway, and weight gain and loss simply comes down to energy balance – there’s no such thing as a “good” or “bad” food.
However, you’re right that eating more whole foods (veggies, legumes, whole grains, etc.) will make you feel better, and fried, heavily processed foods are likely to leave you feeling more sluggish and less energized.
“If you’re anticipating a particularly busy week at work, dedicate a few hours of your down time to prep some snacks and meals in advance so that you can stay on top of your nutrition,” Lee advises.
“You can also stock up on some convenient nutrient-dense foods so that you can throw some things together when you’re in a pinch for time. (I’ve used pre-grilled chicken, pre-chopped and frozen veggies, and even microwaveable rice before!)
“Making sure that you’re satiated with meals or snacks can help you avoid feeling ravenous and subsequently reaching for snacks and calorie-dense foods at the end of a stressful day.”
Similarly, I’m sure you know that carving out a bit of time for exercise, even when you feel like your to-do list is already longer than your arm, is going to be beneficial.
Even a quick workout is a great stress-reliever, and it’s no secret that movement improves mental health.
You may think you don’t have time to go to the gym, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have time to exercise – if you can carve out half an hour of your day, you can go on a 20 minute jog or do a quick at-home HIIT circuit and still have time to shower.
And if you really can’t find half an hour, don’t beat yourself up. Just focus on upping your NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis), which essentially means moving around more over the course of the day. Walking up stairs, carrying boxes, cleaning, or any movement you do that isn’t formal exercise is all NEAT, and it can make a big difference.
“If you don’t have time to do ‘formal exercise’ as such – going to the gym, going for a run, etc. – just try and focus on your step count,” Baptie recommends.
“Try a walk at lunch, stand more at work, move about in the morning – it doesn’t need to be a gruelling session.”
Working out should be a joy, not a chore. If you really aren’t feeling it, don’t force yourself, as that’ll just lead to you developing a negative association with exercise.
“Some people find that working out can be a means of relieving stress, but if you aren’t feeling very motivated to get to the gym, it’s okay to take an occasional day off from working out (guilt-free!),” Lee says.
“Sometimes giving yourself time to rest and recover mentally and physically can help you perform better both in and out of the gym.
“On other days, getting to the gym may be your biggest obstacle but once you get there and start moving, you might start to feel more inclined to keep going.”
Take a moment to check in with yourself and work out what will really be best for both your body and mind.
“I believe the key is to not only make your training sessions enjoyable, but also learn to listen to your body,” Lee says.
“There will be some days when you just need an extra push to get going and other days when you’ll truly benefit more from rest and recovery.”
Take a deep breath, listen to your body, and be kind to yourself, whatever you choose to do.
Wishing you well,
As INSIDER’s Senior Lifestyle Reporter and a self-confessed fitness fanatic, Rachel Hosie is fully immersed in the wellness scene and is here to answer all your burning questions. Whether you’re struggling to find the motivation to go for a run, confused about light vs. heavy weights, or don’t know whether you should be worried about how much sugar is in a mango, Rachel is here to give you the no-nonsense answers and advice you need, with strictly no fad diets in sight.
Rachel has a wealth of experience covering fitness, nutrition, and wellness, and she has the hottest experts at her fingertips – she regularly speaks to some of the world’s most knowledgeable and renowned personal trainers, dietitians, and coaches, ensuring she’s always up-to-date with the latest science-backed facts you need to know to live your happiest, healthiest life.
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Read more Live Well with Rachel:
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- I’m on a low-calorie diet, exercise a lot, but still have fat on my belly and bum. What am I doing wrong?
- How do I maintain my healthy eating and exercising routine when staying with family who don’t care about nutrition or fitness?