Stress & Support

How Do Emotions Affect Eating and Exercise Behaviors?


How individuals see themselves affects their relationship with food. Low self-esteem can lead to the use of food to "feed feelings." Some overweight individuals tend to eat more than healthy weight people when they are sad, stressed or fearful206.

Physical Activity

Starting a physical activity routine can be difficult. Not knowing how to do it properly and fears about how others will react can interfere with getting started.

Typically, we weigh the costs and benefits of undertaking a physical activity:

  • How will I feel?
  • Can I do it?
  • How will other people see me? Will they laugh?
  • If I get too tired, is there a place to rest?
  • What resources do I need, like sneakers, in order to change? Can I get them?

Some benefits:

  • How will starting this activity benefit me?
  • Will I feel better about myself?
  • Will I lose weight?
  • Can I serve as a positive role model for my family and friends?

Feel Good About Yourself: Focus on the Positive

Affirming you are a "healthy person" can make you feel better and more likely to stick with positive behavior changes. In all likelihood, there are some things you are already doing right. Acknowledge them!

  • What positive dietary behaviors are you already doing, such as eating breakfast every day or buying fruits and vegetables regularly?
  • What physical activity behaviors are you already doing, like walking your dog, playing with your kids, gardening, parking a little further from the store, or participating in community events that get you up and moving?
  • What positive self-care activities are you doing? These could include spending time with people you care about and who care about you, taking time out of your day to read a good book, or spending time in your garden.

How Relaxation Reduces Stress

Taking a break and relaxing are also forms of positive self-care. Continuous stress leads to changes in hormone levels, which can increase the desire for foods higher in fat and sugar. Relaxing reduces the levels of these hormones, and that reduces food cravings.
Here are some relaxation strategies:

  • Go for a walk
  • Read a book
  • Take a rest
  • Breathe deeply.

Watching TV is not included in this list because food advertisements on television can make us desire higher calorie foods. Television tends to "suck us in," and can decrease amount of time that we spend being physically active or doing other restorative activities.

How Does Sleep Affect Eating Behaviors?

Busy lifestyles, stress, worries about kids, jobs, and health, and even living conditions can impact how much sleep we get and our sleep quality. Sleep deficiency (not getting enough sleep, sleeping at the wrong times, or having poor quality sleep) increases the risk of obesity. Sleep helps maintain a healthy balance of the hormones that make you feel hungry (ghrelin) or full (leptin). When you don't get enough sleep, your level of ghrelin goes up and your level of leptin goes down. This makes you feel hungrier than if you're well-rested. Lack of sleep can also make you to crave foods that are high in fat and sugar. Sleep also affects how your body reacts to insulin, the hormone that controls your blood glucose (sugar) level. Sleep deficiency may result in a higher than normal blood sugar level, which may increase your risk for diabetes207,208. Preliminary research has also shown that short sleep duration is associated with weight gain, especially around the mid-section, which increases risk for diabetes and heart disease209.

How Do Social Relationships Affect Eating and Exercise Behaviors?

A "social network" describes how relationships and environments interact to create a "web" around us. It includes support from friends, traditions, person-to-person contacts, and access to resources. This network, and the people in it, especially those with whom we spend most of our time, has a strong influence on our habits, such as:

  • The foods we eat
  • The restaurants and stores we frequent
  • The activities we regularly do (e.g., shopping, fishing, exercising, even driving)
  • How much TV we watch or the number/types of video games we play

Social networks can influence how you perceive yourself. If you feel loved and supported, you are more likely to feel better about yourself. If you feel valued at work, you are more likely to be productive and have fewer sick days. Think about how your "social network" is influencing your health.

Positive social relationships have been shown to help individuals:

  • Cope better with stress
  • Recover faster from illnesses
  • Improve mood

You have influence within your social network! Think about your role:

  • Are you a positive person for others by voice or by actions?
  • If you're not as positive as you might be, how can you change?
    • Pause before reacting in an argument
    • Avoid yelling at one person if you're mad at someone else
    • Suggest playing cards instead of watching TV
    • Cook dinner instead of eating out
    • Walk or bike instead of driving.

Social networks provide natural opportunities to talk with others. When people know they have others in their life they can talk to, they feel better. Some may find it helpful to talk with a counselor or therapist. They are trained to listen constructively and to help you think through solutions.

Social networks may not always serve as positive reinforcements for personal changes in eating and activity behaviors. Some relationships may even be abusive, discriminatory, or isolating, and can have a negative influence on these behaviors. Take control of your health-identify and spend more time with people that make you feel good and less time with those that make you feel badly about yourself.

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