The Stress/Fat Connection

By Michael Krueger

According to a recent study, Firefighter is one of the top 10 professions that can make you fat. I’m not going to reprint the entire list, but Police Officer is on it, too. Now, police officers might sit in a car all day, and that may contribute to their weight gain, but firefighters certainly don’t, so what is the deal? The short answer is, “stress.”

How It Works

Stress and the full complement of hormones it creates, particularly cortisol, can wreak havoc on the human body. Neither your body nor the primitive parts of your brain understand how to cope with our modern versions of stress. They don’t know how to react to the stress produced by pending deadlines or money and family issues, auto accidents, house fires, or heart attack victims. So they fall back on what they do understand and try to apply the same solutions. They assume one of two scenarios: either some animal is trying to kill and eat you or else you are starving to death.

The first case triggers the “flight or fight” response. So you either run or fight, both of which will use up a large amount of energy and adrenaline. When you are done you are spent, and your body relaxes. After repeated bouts of this response, you just burn out.

In the second case, your body goes into “starvation mode,” which means it slows your metabolism and takes whatever nourishment you take in and attempts to store it as fat. This keeps you in a constant state of fatigue and agitation, neither of which is conducive to good health. It’s this second situation that contributes to making those in the fire service fat.

Of course, weight gain is not entirely the fault of stress hormones. All the hormones and metabolic responses are responsible for is the rerouting of caloric intake to fat storage. You are ultimately responsible for the type of food you eat and balancing the volume of food with your energy output. You get fat because you eat too much and, in part, because you are not controlling the stress in your life. This is where exercise comes in, but probably not in the manner that you are expecting.

The Exercise Connection

It has long been suggested that exercising is a great way to control the stress in your life. If you are feeling tense and irritable after a hard day, go for a run or hit the weights and you’ll feel better. For short-term stress, this can be an effective strategy, but if the stress is a chronic problem, it will be short-lived relief, because you haven’t addressed the root cause. What you have managed to do is dissipate some of the negative energy you have accumulated through exercise. If the source of the stress is still an active part of your life, it will continue to cause problems. So for long-term stress control, exercise is a poor choice … sort of.

On the plus side, exercise may help you to combat some of the side effects of chronic stress—but, once again, not in the way you might expect. It isn’t that exercise has some magic ability to eliminate stress since, as I said, the reduction effect of the actual activity is only temporary. The benefit lies in the positive effect exercise has on your overall health and fitness (both physical and mental) and, in particular, on your immune system.

Anecdotally, most people have experienced the phenomenon of catching a cold right after a stressful period in their life. It is believed that stress can beat down your immune system so you are more likely to catch whatever is going around. Long-term moderate exercise has been shown to stimulate your immune response so at least you are less likely to get ill and thereby make the stressful situation that much worse. This, obviously, has a positive effect, since it allows you to continue functioning while you learn to identify, address, and deal with the stresses that are conspiring to make you crazy and fat.

The dark side of using exercise alone to address stress is that it doesn’t make it go away; it only creates a temporary respite. When exercise is used like a drug (i.e., to reduce stress), it becomes increasing less effective in that role as time goes by. When this occurs, you need more and more to have the same effect, continuing to increase your dosage until you develop an overuse injury. In fact, overtraining for any reason damages your immune system rather than improves it. This shows pretty conclusively that exercise is a stop-gap strategy at best and, when used as the sole method of dealing with stress, will more than likely end in disaster.

I know that I go against conventional thinking when I say that exercise isn’t the panacea for stress that so many seem to think it is. Obviously, I am a big proponent of moderate exercise in all its forms, but I believe that it needs to be properly applied for the results to be wholly positive. I feel that you should do cardio for heart health and progressive resistance for strength and muscle mass. Neither activity is effective in long-term stress reduction.

Stress reduction can be and frequently is a short-term byproduct of exercise, but it is not its main purpose. If you run for the “mother’s little helper” of exercise every time you feel stressed, you are hiding from the real problem. Eventually, this becomes a source of stress in and of itself and it just makes everything worse.

Now that I have dismissed exercise as a primary source of destressing, I will build it back up and show you how it can, in fact, be a major aid in stress reduction.

The Solution

Physical fitness created through a consistent program of cardiovascular and strength training coupled with an appreciation of the positive influence it has on your overall sense of well-being is a powerful tool in keeping the negative aspects of stress at bay. When you are physically strong and healthy, you are working from a far superior position in which to manage the stress in your life.

Keeping your body in top condition by exercising and eating a healthful diet consisting of unprocessed natural foods is the foundation of a less stressful lifestyle. Avoid excessive self-medication with caffeine, energy drinks, sugar, and alcohol. By maintaining a fit and well-nourished body, you have a better chance of avoiding the chronic negative impacts of stress including heart disease, diabetes, and weight gain.

Earlier I mentioned that exercise is a stop-gap method of stress reduction, but sometimes a quick fix is just what you need. For example, say you’ve had a severely disrupted night’s sleep because you had multiple fire calls. To make matters worse, you had equipment failures; personnel issues; and, to top it off, one call really got to you on an emotional/personal level. You have finally been relieved, and you just want to get away; so what do you do? You might opt for and a beer and a big nasty burger–nothing quite like a few beers accompanied by a major bitch session to validate your crappy mood. This might sound like just the ticket, but is it really?

Here is where the short-term relief from exercise comes into play. You need to blow off some pent-up negative energy and emotions. A run, a swim, or a good solid weightlifting session might do the trick. I know one guy who takes all his frustrations out on the heavy bag; this is the most effective release for him. A physical release, followed by a healthy meal, helps your mind and body to understand that the stress you experienced during the past 24 or 48 hours was just a temporary situation. They have no need to panic and make long-term assumptions (starvation or fight or flight) based on this short-term stress.

If you force your body to work physically, and then feed it healthfully, you can avoid any long-term metabolic issues. Basically, it makes your body thinks it has fought the good battle or successfully hunted for food, so now it can relax and bask in the glow of a job well done. You need to allow your primitive nature to play out this ancient game for it to come to a positive conclusion.

Long Term

If you find yourself frequently overwhelmed by stress, then it is time to seek professional help. There is no shame in admitting you need help. It shows that you are conscientious and aware and want to do right by your department, community, and family.

In the long term, it is easier and better to avoid the maladies created and exacerbated by stress than it is to try to address the aftermath. If every firefighter works to maintain a healthy mental, emotional, and physical lifestyle, it will make long-term stress and its metabolic issues nonissues, and it will go a long way toward getting firefighting out of the top-10 fat-inducing occupations.



Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at 


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