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A woman at a desk with her hands on her face, appearing to be very stressed.

Over the last few years, it feels as though the topic of stress has been at the forefront of nearly every conversation I’m having with my clients.

It’s been an interesting period of time as, on one hand, it seems like there was such an increase of stress on so many of us that our baseline for what “too stressed” is reached an all-time (and unrealistic) high. On the other hand, however, it does also seem like we’re at a point now where, rather than brushing it off as “normal” as we might have previously, this elevation of stress levels has opened our eyes more to its potential detriment.

In contrast to years’ past — when clients often underestimated stress as a barrier to success — I’ve observed that most people are coming to appreciate its true impact. What I’m observing lately is that I’m not just hearing people sharing that they feel stressed, but rather they’re noticing and recognizing its outward signs.

If you’re someone who’s ready to tackle stress’ impact on your body, read on for my top advice around ways to understand and approach stress resilience — including some that I find is often unexpected for people.

Three Things You Might Not Know About Stress

1. Your body tells you when you’re stressed.

Now more than ever, I’m hearing clients report that they’re struggling with a few common symptoms of stress. Most often, they’re reporting:

  • Feeling anxious
  • Having a difficult time losing weight
  • Craving salt
  • Having little to no energy
  • Experiencing sleepless nights

If you relate to these, you’re not alone. While they’re a clear sign that the body is not managing stress well at the moment, the good news is that there are tangible strategies you can implement to build your resilience to stress, which is critical to not only reducing and eliminating those symptoms, but also to seeing results and reaching your goals.

Read more: “5 Signs You’re More Stressed Than You Think

2. It’s individualized.

The impact stress has on metabolism varies quite a bit from person to person, and it might not be due to the amount of stress someone is under, but rather due to their body’s response to it.

Stress is perceived differently in each individual’s body. As a coach who has interpreted the lab results of thousands of Life Time members, there have been times where I hear someone’s recap of their day-to-day and think, “wow, that’s super stressful,” yet they may still have optimal lab values for their stress hormones and cortisol, feel great, and see results.

On the other hand, someone else may report that they don’t have a lot of stress in their life, but their lab work says differently and indicates a metabolic imbalance in stress hormones.

Life will have inevitable stressors. The real-life impact that stress has on you comes down to your resilience and perception to it.

3. Stress comes in many forms.

When you hear the word “stress,” the most common examples that often come to mind are obvious ones: a high-demand job, family commitments and responsibilities, a packed schedule, and so on.

But stress is not just stress from work and family. Your body can elicit a hormonal stress response to injuries, food sensitivities, inflammatory foods, and so much more.

How to Tackle Stress

While there are many things you can do to help your body respond to stress better, these are my top tips for helping make sure you can handle stress — and that it’s not a barrier to reaching your goals.

1. Test Your Cortisol Levels

As a dietitian, I’ve been reviewing and using cortisol patterns with clients for years. As much as I can make assumptions based on what you’re currently doing, how you’re feeling, and the results you’re getting (or not getting), I can give you so much more valuable information if I have your data in front of me.

Someone’s four-point salvia cortisol pattern allows me to customize supplementation recommendations, assess what time of day would be best for them to work out, and even allows me to suggest if the meal timing and balance they’re currently eating is working for them. And that’s just with cortisol results.

In a perfect world, I would recommend assessing cortisol levels in the context of every other area of metabolism, including nutrient levels, blood sugar, inflammation, thyroid hormones, and sex hormones, such as is done in Life Time’s Ultimate All-in-One lab panel. This is the best way to fully customize your plan and get to the root cause to optimize your metabolism.

At minimum, testing your cortisol levels to identify your daily cortisol curve helps someone like me be able to shape the framework of tweaks needed to your program to help you build your resilience to stress. It also eliminates the objective inconsistencies of evaluating your stress levels based solely on feeling or environmental factors as noted above.

(If you’re interested in testing, Life Time offers a Stress Reaction and Heart Health panel, as well as a more comprehensive Ultimate All-in-One panel.)

2. Prioritize Quality Sleep

No matter your goals, or what you’re doing currently with exercise or nutrition, if your body has been under stress, I recommend getting at least seven hours of sleep (ideally eight) each night. Sleep is when your body recovers and assists in resetting the circadian rhythm of your cortisol levels.

If sleep has been difficult for you in the past, start with a dark, cool room, and aim to go to bed at a consistent time each night and wake around the same time each morning. Build a bedtime routine, even something short, that is the same day-to-day to mentally prepare your body to rest.

Learn more: “Sleeping During Stressful Times

3. Workout Smarter

When your body is under stress, you need to make sure it isn’t perceiving your workout as an additional (bad) stressor. That can be done by focusing on the most optimal exercise modalities for times of stress.

Strength training three times per week is ideal — think large muscle group contractions (e.g., squats) and challenge yourself! Remember this rhyme: “Heavier weights with lower reps bodies under stress typically respond best.”

General movement is great for stressed bodies, which is why I’d also recommend striving for 10,000 steps each day. I would be cautious of extensive amounts of cardio or intense workouts that are longer than 45 to 60 minutes, especially if you’re already low in energy and are constantly feeling fatigued.

Be sure to schedule time with a trainer if you’re unsure of how to approach this with your current programing.

4. Add Magnesium

Magnesium is my top recommended mineral. Magnesium is not only depleted as part of the stress response, but the average American adult is already not getting sufficient, let alone optimal, amounts.

If you’re not getting enough magnesium, it can impact almost every metabolic system in your body — meaning it’s likely that you just won’t feel well. I suggest adding 200 to 500 mg of magnesium before bed as it can help with calmness, relaxation, and quality sleep, too. (Contact your health care provider before introducing any new supplementation to your regimen.)

Learn more: “Why Magnesium?” and “Magnesium: Health Benefits and Best Ways to Supplement

If you implement these four items, I’m confident you can start building your body’s resiliency against stress.

While the road to recovery (depending on where you’re at) may take longer than you’d like, it’s important to address, as stress is often the root cause for a lot of issues metabolically. Your gut health, thyroid hormones, sex hormones, blood sugar, and more are all at risk with out-of-control stress, which is why we want to get levels in check as soon as possible.

If you need support and want to partner with a coach, reach out to your local Life Time club — our experts are here to partner with you each step of the way.

Keep the conversation going.

Leave a comment, ask a question, or see what others are talking about in the Life Time Health Facebook group.

Katie Knafla, RD, LD

Katie Knafla, RD, LD is the assistant program manager for lab testing at Life Time.

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