While stress is a natural part of life, studies have shown that stress levels in the western world have increased steadily over the last several years. These rising stress levels not only have a negative impact on overall mental and physical health, but they can also put a serious damper on your fitness goals.

How Stress Can Undermine Your Efforts

Too much stress can affect both your diet and exercise routines in negative ways. First, it can decrease the effectiveness of your workouts by increasing muscle tension and making concentration difficult. Increased tension and decreased concentration can both lead to injuries, potentially keeping you out of the gym for weeks, or even months. Studies have also shown that regular exercisers who are under significant stress show noticeably less progress over a given period than those who are relatively stress-free. Stress also makes it harder to lose weight because the stress hormone cortisol promotes weight gain, counteracting efforts to shed pounds. This can be frustrating, leading to even more stress. The whole thing becomes a big feedback loop that undermines your efforts both in the kitchen and in the gym.

The Dangers Of Stress Eating

Most of us have had the experience of reaching for a candy bar or a bowl of ice cream after a long, stressful day. This so-called stress eating is a very real physical phenomenon. Stress increases food cravings and can lead to depression, which can also increase food cravings. This, combined with those increased cortisol levels, can quickly lead to a situation where you’re packing on the pounds and undoing all your hard-earned progress. Eating too much junk food also increases your risk of health problems like diabetes and cardiovascular disease. If you find yourself stress-eating frequently, switch up your snack choices to something healthier. A bowl of oatmeal or some fresh fruit can give you the carbs and sugars your body is craving, without wrecking your diet in the process.

How to Reduce Stress

Clearly, stress has got to go; not only is it bad for our mental wellbeing, but it has major impacts on our physical health. Reducing stress should be a priority for anyone looking for a better quality of life and if you’ve got big fitness goals, it’s even more important. So, that in mind, how can we minimize stress and stay on track?

#1 – Keep Your Workout Routine Going

Regular exercise is actually one of the best ways to combat stress and anxiety. Exercise lowers cortisol and other stress hormones and promotes restful sleep. On the flip side, stress can make exercise harder: stress tends to be de-motivating, so you may not feel like hitting the gym. The important thing here, like any wellness goal, is consistency. Create a regular gym schedule so that you know you’ll be going, instead of waiting until you feel like it, because chances are, if you’re stressed and anxious, exercise is going to be the last thing on your mind – And remember that heavy stress can increase your injury risk, so if you’re really going through it and feeling tense, consider taking a light day or sticking to cardio for a bit.

#2 – Improve Your Sleep Quality

Getting a good night’s sleep is also important for managing stress. Regular exercise is great for sleep. Not only are you worn out after a good workout, but exercise decreases stress hormones, so you’re likely to be more relaxed afterwards. Exercising in the evening helps in another way too: when you work out, your body temperature rises. As you cool down, the drop in internal temperature can put your body in a perfect state to doze off. If you’re already exercising regularly and still struggling with sleep, there are other things you can try. Avoid caffeine in the late afternoon and evening, since it’s a stimulant that can linger in your system for hours. You should also avoid screens in the hour or so leading up to bedtime. The blue light from computer, phone, and TV screens can mess with your natural melatonin production and prevent restful sleep.

#3 – Try Yoga & Meditation

Yoga isn’t just a great workout, it’s also a proven stress reliever. The combination of exercise, breathing techniques, and deep focus inherent in yoga is excellent for calming the mind and reducing anxiety. Guided meditations and breathing exercises can also help calm racing thoughts and get your mind relaxed and centered again. A qualified wellness coach can recommend a program that meets your needs.

Stress can seriously derail even the best-laid fitness plans, and there’s little we can do to escape it. Fortunately, there are plenty of things we can do to minimize stress and keep on track. If you’re struggling to meet your goals because of heavy stress, give these tips a shot!

Grant is a fitness coach and the founder of Team G-Fit.