Fitness + Cortisol Release | How To Exercise When You’re Feeling Stressed

stress cortisol and fitness

Is your workout helping you chill out… Or is it making you more stressed? With so many of us turning to fitness to help burn off day-to-day annoyances or even trying to alleviate chronic stress, I wondered whether these tough workouts were helping us reduce stress in the long-term or whether the cortisol released during high-intensity training  was actually making us worse.

Under conditions of high mental and/or physical stress, or high temperatures, the adrenal glands release cortisol which is the ‘fight or flight’ hormone. It’s a catabolic hormone, which means that cortisol breaks down tissue to deliver energy under stressful situations, but this tissue can come from anywhere, so not ideal for muscle growth and maintenance. Add to this that it reduces protein synthesis and works to turn protein into glucose, it’s a fitness disaster.

stress cortisol and fitness

Cortisol’s effects can be classed as positive or negative depending on whether the release is short-term or a long-term chronic release. Cortisol mobilises fatty acids, governs regulation to inflammatory response, balances blood sugar during stressful times and helps maintain blood pressure, so it’s not all bad, but chronically high cortisol can cause high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes; it can affect your sleep cycle, making you feel tired all the time; it can interfere with your memory and cause brain ‘fog’, and it can impair the immune system.

For both fitness and your overall health, cortisol needs to be controlled – but if training is classed as a stressor, how do you keep it steady when exercising?

How should you train if you suffer from stress?

Let me preface this by saying that everyone is unique, so what one person finds helps reduce stress, another finds stressful. What I’m about to suggest comes from working with clients who suffer from stress and also from research around the subject.

If you follow these strategies, I’d recommend keeping a journal recording different elements related to stress, with tangible things like waist measurement and weight, along with less tangible details like how tired or stressed you’ve been feeling.

stress cortisol and fitness

Train early in the morning

Your cortisol levels are at their highest from 7 to 9am, so you’d think that training at this time would send them sky-high, right? Wrong – already elevated cortisol levels don’t get any higher, so by training first thing you’ll ensure they come to a gradual and natural low in line with your circadian rhythm just before bed.

Eat first thing and straight after training

These are the most stressful times for your body, and during these times insulin does not have the nullifying effect it normally does on cortisol, so what you consume facilitates insulin release directly. A balance of protein and carbs straight after training can help offset the cortisol response.

Keep training sessions to 45-60 minutes

Your body runs off glycogen, which is stored within your muscles and liver, but after 45-60 minutes of exercise that energy runs out, and you start pulling energy from your other body tissues. Additionally, once glycogen runs out your body releases cortisol to help access these tissues for energy. Keep workouts to 45 minutes then you won’t run out of energy and you’ll prevent extra cortisol from releasing.

stress cortisol and fitness

Take rest days

Overtraining can cause chronic cortisol release, not only delaying muscle repair and workout recovery, but potentially causing other chronic stress effects. Experiment with how many training days work for you but begin with 3 days per week then gradually work from there, recording in your journal with how you feel each day.

Do weight training

Weight training releases growth hormone which offsets cortisol’s effects on the body, meaning the catabolic effect isn’t as great. Additionally a study released this month claimed that lifting weights is associated with a significant reduction in depressive symptoms, so there’s a possibility that strength training can help tackle symptoms of stress, too.

Work to combat every day stress

Activities like yoga, meditation, walking, the occasional much-needed spa day or even laughing with friends can help reduce overall stress – a study showed that cortisol levels in animals are 50% higher if they are socially isolated. Once you’re in a good place with managing stress well, look at combating the source. Can you handover a project at work, or can you speak to other family members about sharing the workload at home? It may not be that simple, but when you’re feeling calmer you’ll be in a better place to tackle this.

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