Life can be fast-paced and stressful.
No matter who you are, where you live, and what type of work you do, you’ve probably experienced some stress.
But what is the relationship between working out, nutrition, and stress? Does stress lead to weight gain, and is it contributing to a skinny fat physique?
Today’s guide will answer that question and tell you what you can do about it.
Let’s dive in.
Fix the skinny fat look in 7 simple steps...
Download my free guide on fixing the skinny fat look in the next 6 months. Implement step one today!
What Does ‘Skinny Fat’ Mean?
A skinny fat body type is characterized by low muscular development and a high body fat percentage. The result is a person who appears thin and possibly even fit while wearing clothes but lacks any muscle definition.
Men often carry a lot of fat around the chest, stomach, and lower back, whereas skinny fat women have more ‘fluff’ around the belly, lower back, buttocks, and thighs. Here are a couple of photos:
The two primary reasons for having a skinny fat body type are:
- Weight loss
Some people are genetically predisposed to the skinny fat physique. Coupling that with poor lifestyle choices leads to poor body composition. A few habits that contribute to the skinny fat body type include:
- Mainly eating processed junk food
- Not doing any form of resistance training
- Consuming large amounts of alcohol frequently
- Sleeping poorly
Similarly, many people end up skinny fat after losing a lot of weight by not focusing on the following:
- Slow weight loss
- Eating enough protein
- Doing some resistance training
- Getting at least seven hours of sleep
What is Stress And How Does It Impact Your Body?
Stress is your body’s response to a perceived threat. When you sense danger, your body enters the fight, flight, or freeze state, bringing about several notable changes (1).
Your brain signals your adrenal glands of the danger, commanding them to produce and release large amounts of adrenaline, cortisol, and other hormones.
The flood of these hormones causes more glucose to become available for energy, providing your body with the fuel it needs to deal with the danger.
Additionally, your senses sharpen, your heart rate increases, and pain perception drops. The result is a stronger and more resilient you, capable of running away or winning a fight.
Once you’ve dealt with the threat, your heart rate drops, and your body returns to normal.
The above is a response to acute stress that occurs temporarily. Unfortunately, there is another form of stress: chronic.
The Problem With Chronic Stress
Chronic stress is a form of persistent psychological or emotional strain. People suffering from chronic stress often feel overwhelmed and unable to cope with life’s difficulties.
Unlike acute stress, which goes away quickly, chronic stress is a form that persists for days, weeks, or even months. It can wreak havoc on your health, well-being, and productivity.
As mentioned above, stress leads to hormonal changes that prepare your body for danger. An issue with chronic stress is that it forces the same hormonal changes but for much longer.
The threat doesn’t go away, and your body keeps producing and releasing stress hormones.
One hormone that can remain elevated in the face of chronic stress is cortisol.
The hormone is necessary for good health, but chronic elevations can contribute to water retention, hypertension (high blood pressure), mental health issues, and a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes (2).
2. Digestive System
Chronic stress can upset your digestive system and lead to issues like indigestion and loss of appetite.
3. Sexual Health
Chronic stress can be burdensome and impact your body and mind, leading to a drop in sexual desire and ability.
It’s not uncommon for people to experience a drop in sex drive during stressful periods. Your body needs energy to tackle the stressors you’re dealing with, and sex can wait.
Stress can also impact your testosterone levels. The hormone is crucial for men’s health and plays a pivotal role in sex drive, fertility, and more. Low testosterone levels are linked to erectile dysfunction, low sperm count, and other related issues (3).
The fourth significant way chronic stress can impact your life relates to decision-making. Dealing with stress can affect your decisions in a more nuanced way than the familiar fight-or-flight response (4).
For instance, stress can sap your motivation and make you less likely to chase goals. Instead of doing what’s necessary for reaching goals, you could become more likely to seek instant gratification to feel better.
Similarly, some people fall into the trap of emotional eating. These individuals become attached to food and find comfort, often binge eating processed and highly-palatable foods.
Another big way stress can impact your health is through sleep. People dealing with chronic stress often fall into a perpetual cycle of sleeping poorly and feeling even more stressed (5).
The problem with poor sleep is that it impacts every major area of your life.
Sleep deprivation impairs productivity, flattens your motivation, and makes you more irritable (6). It also affects your health and can contribute to various diseases.
Aside from that, poor sleep can impair muscle growth and fat loss, preventing you from achieving a body recomposition and fixing the skinny fat physique.
Does Stress Lead to Weight Gain And Keep You Skinny Fat?
Stress doesn’t directly lead to weight gain but promotes changes that predispose you to worse body composition.
First, chronic stress can make you less motivated to train hard and follow a nutrition plan. You’re more likely to skip workouts, train half-heartedly, and seek pleasure in food (4).
Second, stress can impair your sleep, which hinders your training, makes you more impulsive, impairs muscle protein synthesis, and can affect fat-burning (5, 6, 7).
5 Ways To Manage Your Stress And Prevent It From Stopping Progress
1. Get Enough Sleep
Getting enough sleep is one of the best ways to improve your health, manage your stress, and achieve better results in the gym (8).
Adequate sleep can lower cortisol levels and bring balance to your endocrine system. Sleep is also necessary for becoming more resilient and better able to tackle life’s challenges.
Research finds that good sleep improves our cognition, makes us more productive, and promotes relaxation (9).
The benefits can enhance your problem-solving abilities and help you devise practical and creative ways to overcome roadblocks.
Here are a few ways to improve your sleep:
- Go to bed and wake up at similar times every day
- Avoid any screens in the last hour before bed
- Cut out your caffeine intake within eight hours of going to bed
- Invest in a quality mattress and pillow
- Do relaxing activities in the evening (reading, journaling, meditating, stretching, taking a bath, etc.)
2. Do Some Resistance Training
Resistance training is a form of stressor, so you might be wondering how it can be an effective stress-management tactic.
According to research, regular physical activity increases our emotional resilience to stress.
In one study, researchers collected a group of 111 people and put them through two experiments (10). One was a stress-related test (Trier Social Stress Test), and the other was a non-stressful control task.
The subjects that reported exercising at least once per week experienced a smaller drop in positive affect (the subjective level of positive emotions such as joy). Researchers conclude:
These findings provide modest support for claims that regular exercise protects against the negative emotional consequences of stress, and suggest that exercise has beneficial effects in healthy individuals.
Another study supports the idea, and researchers suggest that regular physical activity is an effective tactic for improving mood, particularly during stressful periods (11).
We also can’t discount the tremendous positive effect of exercise on mood, motivation, and well-being.
Physically active individuals are happier and more optimistic than their sedentary counterparts (12). A better mood can be a protective layer against negative and stressful life events.
The great thing about exercise is that you don’t have to do it in one specific way to reap benefits.
For instance, if you’re not ready to start going to a gym or can’t fit it into your life, even a simple home bodyweight routine can offer many benefits.
3. Cut Back On The Cardio
Aerobic activities like running and riding a bike can offer numerous health benefits, elevate your mood, and promote weight loss. But, like any exercise, cardio can be demanding on your body and mind.
One good way to manage stress is to reduce cardio, at least during stressful periods.
Doing so can give you a break from the physical stress, making you better able to handle a challenging situation with grace.
Too much cardio can be a significant source of stress, especially when combined with a calorie-restricted diet.
Skinny fat people often fail to transform their physique because they do too much cardio, limiting their recoverability and weight training performance.
4. Avoid Excessive Dieting
Dieting is sometimes necessary for shedding fat, improving one’s body composition, and reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Unfortunately, many people go overboard with their dieting efforts and pile stress on top of stress.
Caloric restriction brings about a catabolic state and promotes physical and psychological stress. To avoid it becoming a problem, you must diet intelligently and sparingly.
One helpful tactic is to diet for six to ten weeks and take a full diet break for a week or two. Doing so can give your body a break from the diet, get your mind off food, and increase your weight loss success.
Additionally, you should diet slowly, losing 0.5 to 1 percent of your body weight per week (13).
For instance, if you weigh 180 pounds now, aim for no more than 0.9 to 1.8 pounds of weekly weight loss. You can afford to lose more weight at the start of your diet, but the rate should slow down the longer you’re in a calorie deficit.
One significant reason skinny fat people fail to transform their physique is that they diet all the time, not eating nearly as many calories as they need to train well and recover between sessions.
5. Consider Certain Supplements
Despite the misinformation, false promises, and sleazy marketing tactics in the supplements industry, some compounds can benefit our health and fitness. You can take several supplements to manage your stress and feel more at ease.
L-theanine is one compound with beneficial effects on the mind. The amino acid is found in green tea but can also be taken as a supplement.
Research notes several theanine benefits:
The amino acid promotes these effects by stimulating alpha wave activity in the brain. These waves are produced primarily when we’re awake but not too concentrated on anything specific.
Another supplement worth considering for stress management is vitamin D3. According to research, people deficient in vitamin D are more likely to experience anxiety, which can contribute to stress and sleep issues (17).
The primary way to get vitamin D is through skin exposure to the sun. You might get enough of the nutrient during the summer months, but plenty of people end up at least mildly deficient during the colder months.
Related article: The Top 3 Supplements For Skinny Fat People (Plus 3 You Don’t Need)
Does stress lead to weight gain? Not directly, but it can lead to changes that promote physical inactivity, poor eating behaviors, and sleep deprivation.
These factors can contribute to worse body composition and an inability to fix the skinny fat look.
So, if you’re dealing with more stress than usual, take active measures to manage it.
Fix the skinny fat look in 7 simple steps...
Download my free guide on fixing the skinny fat look in the next 6 months. Implement step one today!
1. Chu B, Marwaha K, Sanvictores T, et al. Physiology, Stress Reaction. [Updated 2021 Sep 18]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-.
2. McEwen BS. Central effects of stress hormones in health and disease: Understanding the protective and damaging effects of stress and stress mediators. Eur J Pharmacol. 2008 Apr 7;583(2-3):174-85. doi: 10.1016/j.ejphar.2007.11.071. Epub 2008 Jan 30. PMID: 18282566; PMCID: PMC2474765.
3. Sizar O, Schwartz J. Hypogonadism. [Updated 2022 Jun 27]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-.
4. Schneiderman N, Ironson G, Siegel SD. Stress and health: psychological, behavioral, and biological determinants. Annu Rev Clin Psychol. 2005;1:607-28. doi: 10.1146/annurev.clinpsy.1.102803.144141. PMID: 17716101; PMCID: PMC2568977.
5. Kim EJ, Dimsdale JE. The effect of psychosocial stress on sleep: a review of polysomnographic evidence. Behav Sleep Med. 2007;5(4):256-78. doi: 10.1080/15402000701557383. PMID: 17937582; PMCID: PMC4266573.
6. Banks S, Dinges DF. Behavioral and physiological consequences of sleep restriction. J Clin Sleep Med. 2007 Aug 15;3(5):519-28. PMID: 17803017; PMCID: PMC1978335.
7. Lamon S, Morabito A, Arentson-Lantz E, Knowles O, Vincent GE, Condo D, Alexander SE, Garnham A, Paddon-Jones D, Aisbett B. The effect of acute sleep deprivation on skeletal muscle protein synthesis and the hormonal environment. Physiol Rep. 2021 Jan;9(1):e14660. doi: 10.14814/phy2.14660. PMID: 33400856; PMCID: PMC7785053.
8. Choi DW, Chun SY, Lee SA, Han KT, Park EC. Association between Sleep Duration and Perceived Stress: Salaried Worker in Circumstances of High Workload. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2018 Apr 19;15(4):796. doi: 10.3390/ijerph15040796. PMID: 29671770; PMCID: PMC5923838.
9. Diekelmann S. Sleep for cognitive enhancement. Front Syst Neurosci. 2014 Apr 2;8:46. doi: 10.3389/fnsys.2014.00046. PMID: 24765066; PMCID: PMC3980112.
10. Childs E, de Wit H. Regular exercise is associated with emotional resilience to acute stress in healthy adults. Front Physiol. 2014 May 1;5:161. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2014.00161. PMID: 24822048; PMCID: PMC4013452.
11. Schultchen D, Reichenberger J, Mittl T, Weh TRM, Smyth JM, Blechert J, Pollatos O. Bidirectional relationship of stress and affect with physical activity and healthy eating. Br J Health Psychol. 2019 May;24(2):315-333. doi: 10.1111/bjhp.12355. Epub 2019 Jan 22. PMID: 30672069; PMCID: PMC6767465.
12. An HY, Chen W, Wang CW, Yang HF, Huang WT, Fan SY. The Relationships between Physical Activity and Life Satisfaction and Happiness among Young, Middle-Aged, and Older Adults. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Jul 4;17(13):4817. doi: 10.3390/ijerph17134817. PMID: 32635457; PMCID: PMC7369812.
13. Garthe I, Raastad T, Refsnes PE, Koivisto A, Sundgot-Borgen J. Effect of two different weight-loss rates on body composition and strength and power-related performance in elite athletes. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2011 Apr;21(2):97-104. doi: 10.1123/ijsnem.21.2.97. PMID: 21558571.
14. Theanine | ScienceDirect
15. Hidese S, Ogawa S, Ota M, Ishida I, Yasukawa Z, Ozeki M, Kunugi H. Effects of L-Theanine Administration on Stress-Related Symptoms and Cognitive Functions in Healthy Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Nutrients. 2019 Oct 3;11(10):2362. doi: 10.3390/nu11102362. PMID: 31623400; PMCID: PMC6836118.
16. Kim S, Jo K, Hong KB, Han SH, Suh HJ. GABA and l-theanine mixture decreases sleep latency and improves NREM sleep. Pharm Biol. 2019 Dec;57(1):65-73. doi: 10.1080/13880209.2018.1557698. PMID: 30707852; PMCID: PMC6366437.
17. Silva MRM, Barros WMA, Silva MLD, Silva JMLD, Souza APDS, Silva ABJD, Fernandes MSS, Souza SL, Souza VON. Relationship between vitamin D deficiency and psychophysiological variables: a systematic review of the literature. Clinics (Sao Paulo). 2021 Nov 8;76:e3155. doi: 10.6061/clinics/2021/e3155. PMID: 34755759; PMCID: PMC8552952.