Exercise has long been known as a critical factor in lasting natural weight loss, but it is now becoming clear that for some people, the wrong kind of exercise may actually be interfering with their ability to lose weight. This is primarily true for those people who carry their excess weight mostly in the lower abdomen – the saggy stomach “pooch”. This type of weight deposition is characteristic of adrenal dysfunction, and too much or the wrong kind of exercise can make this problem worse.
The adrenals are small glands that sit on top of the kidneys (“adrenal” translates to “on top of the kidney”). Alhough they are small, the adrenal glands are powerful organs and produce hormones involved in many functions. The most familiar of the adrenal horomones is probably adrenaline (also called epinephrine). As you are probably aware, adrenaline is produced in response to stress or fear and mobilizes the body for “flight or fight” responses by raising blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing, and by diverting blood flow to the muscles for fast action. Adrenaline also promotes the burning of fat for energy, so adrenal function can promote weight loss during short periods of physical or even emotional stress.
The adrenal glands produce another hormone that can promote weight gain though. This hormone is called cortisol, and it tends to cause the storage of fat in the lower abdomen. Even when severely overworked by stress, the adrenal glands can continue to produce hgh amounts of cortisol over long periods of time, unlikewith adrenaline which gets used up rather quickly. This means that any fat-burning effects from adrenaline will be overcome in the long-run by the fat-storing effects of cortisol. From a survival standpoint, cortisol serves the purpose of providing emergency storage of fat for energy when the body is under stress for a long period of time. This storage of fat in the lower abdomen will provide energy and keep a person alive if he or she must endure long periods living under harsh and physically demanding conditions. Unfortuately, emotional stress stimulates cortisol production as well, and for many people who live stressful lives, their ongoing cortisol production will tend to cause weight gain in the lower abdomen.
So what does this have to do with exercise? For an individual who is under constant, long-term mental stress, the adrenal glands are always being overtaxed, so that person’s cortisol levels are already elevated and their adrenaline has been long since used up for the most part. If you add a lot of strenuous exercise into the mix, the result is more cortisol production. As the cortisol levels increase, there is a greater and greater tendency to store fat in the lower abdomen.
Many people in this situation who are determined to lose weight will see their inability to lose weight as an indication that they need to exercise harder and more often. These people may be able to continue to lose weight in general, because if you are burning more calories than you take in, you will lose weight, but they never are able to eliminate that lower belly fat. Such people often struggle to exercise even more and with more intensity, but they can’t ged rid of that lower abdominal bulge, and they get more and more tired and often start to lose muscle mass and strenght in the large muscles of the arms and legs.
Why would somone lose strength in the muscles in the arms and legs? Isn’t exercise supposed to build muscle? Well, cortisol not only stores fat in the lower abdomen, it also stimulates the breakdown of muscle and other tissue to use for immediate energy needs. So the more determined a person is to exercise away the belly fat, the more cortisol is produced, and as we said a moment ago, if you burn more calories than you take in, you will lose weight, only in this case the weight being lost is muscle and not fat!
The result is a downward spiral of fatigue, loss of muscle mass and strength, and sometimes the development of joint problems as the body eats it’s own tissues for energy – but there’s no reduction in that lower abdomen fat deposit that the body holds in reserve.
So what should a person with this problem do to lose that lower stomach “pooch”? Well, first of all it is important to figure out if you actually fall into this category, because with the exception of someone who has high cortisol production and overworked adrenals, vigorous exercise is still one of the most effective weight loss measures one can take.
Someone with a high cortisol problem will have a certain collection of signs and symptoms. First, as we’ve mentioned several times already, the excess weight is deposited almost exclusively in the lower abdomen. The weight would create a sagging area just below the waistline. As we’ve already stated, there may be loss of muscle in the arms and legs, and this might be visibly noticable, or it may manifest simply as an inability to build strength in these muscles. In addition, people with adrenal fatigue and high cortisol may have a collection of symptoms that could include chronic fatigue, cravings for salty foods, a need for caffeine or other stimulants just to stay awake during the day, swelling in the lower legs, dizziness when arising quickly from a seated position, numerous arthritic problems, cramps in the calves at night, and waking up frequently in the middle of the night.
If you do fall into this category of adrenal fatigue / high cortisol, exercise is still important, but you want the kind of exercise that helps you to handle stress, not exercise that creates additional stress. For someone with overworked adrenals, the best type of exercise is relatively low-intensity aerobic exercise for 30 to 60 minutes about 3 times per week. Aerobic exercise is activity you are able to do without becoming out of breath and without being totally exhausted afterwards. Among the options for this type of exercise are walking, bicycling, swimming, yoga, tai chi, and low-intensity aerobics. Exercising outdoors seems to be particularly beneficial for stress reduction, and subsequently cortisol reduction, at least when there are no extremes of temperature to deal with. Besides changing to a lighter form of exercise, nutritionally it is helpful to be careful to eat plenty of protein in order to spare muscle tissue. This is easily accomplished by most people, but if you’ve been drastically cutting calories to lose weight, you are probably actually working against yourself. To reduce muscle breakdown, 3 to 4 ounces of animal proteins from eggs, dairy, fish, meat, or poultry per meal (3 meals per day) is usually a good amount. If you are a vegan, just make sure to eat plenty of beans, nuts, seeds, and other high-protein foods. If you’ve been working out like crazy to try to get rid of that belly fat, but all you’ve managed to accomplish was feeling tired, weak, and sore, by reducing the intensity of your workouts and controlling stress better, you’ll likely find that the belly fat gradually shrinks away and you’ll look and feel great!