Is Financial Stress Making You Fat?

Do you ever immediately regret logging on to check your bank balance? Does the period between one paycheck and the next seem like an impossibly long stretch of time? Do you find yourself dodging calls from creditors, hawking belongings for extra cash or passing on invitations because you can’t afford the activities?
If any of these sound familiar, you may be among the nearly half of Americans who consistently experience financial stress. It’s no secret that money worries can cause you to lose sleep and spat with your spouse, but—if you let them—they could also keep your weight-loss goals out of reach.

The Link Between Money Stress and Obesity

According to personal trainer and fitness expert Michael Blauner, there are two ways in which stress can trigger weight gain: physiological and psychological.
"Stress causes numerous hormonal changes in the body, some of which can trigger weight gain—which is a physiological effect of stress," he explains.
But isn’t weight gain all about "calories in, calories out"? Not necessarily, says personal trainer and nutritionist Kristy Stabler. "Although calories do play a big role in weight management, so does hormonal balance," she says. "Hormones don't have calories, but they can cause you to gain weight through multiple mechanisms."
First, when you're constantly stressed—say, about that mounting pile of bills on the kitchen counter—your body puts out more cortisol, which is a stress hormone. When cortisol rises, Stabler explains, it signals the body to push out more sugar into the bloodstream to deal with the stressful event. Once that sugar is released, though, we aren't burning the energy because most of our stress doesn't require running from a bear. When cortisol is high, your body tends to burn off muscle tissue and stores fat. High levels of cortisol also increase hunger hormones, which can cause you to crave sweets and fatty foods.
"If you find yourself never hungry in the morning, but ravenous in the afternoon and evening, you probably have some level of dysregulation of cortisol," Stabler says.
Then there's the psychological effect of stress, which can cause reactionary eating. When you’re unsure where the next mortgage payment is coming from, food can serve as a delicious distraction, making you feel happy and comfortable, but, obviously, this extra calorie intake will eventually lead to weight gain, which can become a stressor in and of itself. "Of course, in some cases, people tend to eat less and lose weight when under extreme stress, but I don’t see this nearly as often as weight gain," says Blauner.

Tips for Getting Fit on a Budget

Contrary to what those pricey workout apparel stores and upscale fitness boutiques might have you believe, getting and staying in shape doesn’t have to shrink your wallet along with your waistline. Try some of these low- or no-cost tips to get more bang for your exercise buck.
  • Walk the weight away. According to Stabler, the cheapest way to get in shape is to invest in a good pair of tennis shoes and walk all the time, everywhere. "Getting outside and taking a long, leisurely walk can help clear your brain, get your blood pumping, get vitamin D in your system and even provide fresh ideas for how to turn your financial situation around," she says. Park far away from building entrances, eschew the elevator, walk laps around the office building during conference calls and keep it moving during kids’ soccer practices or dance classes.
  • Create your own mini gym. For strength training, Stabler says there are quite a few exercises you can do in your own living room with no added expense: pushups, sit-ups, handstands, jumping jacks, leg lifts, planks, lunges, squats, squat jumps and triceps dips off a chair, just to name a few. You can do bodyweight exercises that require absolutely no equipment, or purchase some inexpensive hand weights for added resistance.
  • Look for gym deals. Although there are plenty of exercises you can do at home, Stabler believes that getting a gym membership at a place close to your home or work is a good investment. "People tend to show up more when they go to a gym versus working out at home," she notes. "There are too many distractions at home, and many people give up on a home routine." Many gyms offer promotions for new members. Check out these ideas for saving on a gym membership.
  • Don’t get hung up on "The Next Big Thing." It’s easy to get enticed by private personal training sessions or hot new studio classes that stretch a little too far outside of your budget, but Stabler says you’ll get more sustainable results by focusing on what you can afford for the long term. "Get creative and find joy in new ways to move your body and stay in shape," she says. "You don't need money to get in shape; you just need some creativity and a willing spirit."

Strategies for Reducing Money Stress

If financial worries are taking a toll on your physical and mental health, it’s easy to get distracted by those concerns and push your health and wellness to the back burner. Instead, it’s important to find healthy, productive outlets for that stress.
  • Start a "rainy day" fund. This may seem like an unrealistic goal when you’re already struggling to make ends meet, but it’s essential to set aside at least a small amount from each paycheck to have on hand in case of emergency. Every dollar counts, and you’ll be surprised by how just having a small nest egg in the bank will slash your stress levels.
  • Live well within your means. Blauner is a big proponent of keeping life as simple as possible. Comb through your budget and eliminate any unnecessary expenses—chances are you can trim more than you think. For the items that remain, look for opportunities to reduce their cost. Spread out splurges so they don’t have too much of an impact on your bottom line.
  • Lower your expectations. "Stop comparing your life to other people’s, and try to realize what is truly obtainable in your situation," suggests trainer Alex Haschen. "If you won’t be happy until you fly first-class to Paris, but you only make $12 an hour, you might need to reevaluate 'happiness.'"
  • Focus on the positives. It’s easy to get frustrated when you can barely cover this month’s electric bill, much less pay for the pair of jeans your daughter wants or the airfare to visit out-of-town family. Instead of getting bogged down by what you can’t do, focus on what you are able to accomplish. This might be something as simple as keeping the house clean, adding a little extra to the minimum credit card payment or laying down new mulch yourself without paying a landscaper.
  • Cook at home. If you’re trying to heal a bruised budget, there’s simply no way to avoid this step. "It’s time-consuming, and it’s easy to say we don’t have the time to cook, but there are countless meals that can be prepped and cooked in less than an hour," says Blauner. He also suggests cooking in bulk and storing pre-cooked meals.
  • Shop smarter. "Don’t assume buying organic is healthier," says Haschen. "If you’re on a budget, washing your veggies and fruits thoroughly will help remove residue and save you lots of cash." He also recommends that you stop buying the "healthy" items that are being marketed to you and start buying the basics. "You will save a ton if you quit buying 'organic juices, PH water and non-GMO oats,' and just start buying regular veggies, fruit and simple cuts of meat," Haschen says. Also, buy in bulk when you can—memberships to wholesale grocers pay off quickly when you can stock up on larger quantities of veggies, meat and fruit.
If money woes are sending your stress skyrocketing, you don’t have to let it take a pricey toll on your strength and sanity. By utilizing some of these tips, you can keep both your body and your budget in shape, while also implementing some healthy stress management strategies.
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Member Comments

Good info Report
Most of my problem is that I can't afford healthy food. Not worried about a gym as I do everything at home and a walk in the outdoors. I am left with $100 a week to feed 3 people and healthy foods will put me way over budget. Report
Thanks for a great article. Report
I am stunned that there is no mention of the low cost of low-nutrition foods being a HUGE contributing factor to weight gain among the poor! Macaroni, rice, potatoes, sugar, and white bread are WAY cheaper than meat and vegetables!

How about this advice:

Choose foods that give you the most nutritional bang for your measly couple of bucks left after you (barely) get your rent paid.

Eggs top the list. Super food powerhouses, they are still really cheap per serving.

Canned veggies have most of the food value of fresh at a fraction of the price.

Chicken is the ultimate chameleon; you can put it in most meals. Buy it whole and cook it yourself! It's a fraction of the price of cut up pieces or prepared food.

I'm really appalled at this First World Problems article fussing about gym memberships while totally ignoring the REAL stress of actual poverty. Report
Thanks for a great article! :) Report
I know stress over money contributes to my weight troubles. Report
For some, meeting their budget means buying cheaper food. Those less costly foods, invariably, mean processed foods, most of which carry the greatest risk to overall health, and contribute most to rates of obesity. Encouraging healthy eating is wonderful, but its cost can come dearly to those with limited income. Report
Yes, yes and yes! Thanks for the ideas to make that a no, no and no. Report
Good ideas Report
Many good ideas Report
"Budget"? What are the limits of budgeting? Neither poverty nor homelessness is mentioned in this article. Not to mention unemployment. Report
Good information, I am getting my finances in order Report
I moved around a bit and then got married so have a couple of different credit union accounts. One of the cars I financed, I had paid directly out of 1 of these accounts, so set up payroll deduction (half of monthly payment every check) into that account. The next car I financed, for some reason, made it more difficult to set up direct pay, so I wrote checks from main account but let the old deductions keep going into the 1st account. It's adds up faster than you would think, and I use it for emergencies that come up, like part of the new roof, or emergency vet bills. Report
thanks for sharing Report
This article has given me hope and practical suggestions.....t
hanks! Report


About The Author

Melissa Rudy
Melissa Rudy
A lifelong Cincinnatian, Melissa earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from University of Cincinnati before breaking into online writing in 2000. As a Digital Journalist for SparkPeople, she enjoys helping others meet their wellness goals by writing about all aspects of healthy living. An avid runner and group fitness addict, Melissa lives in Loveland with her guitarist husband and three feisty daughters.
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