Exercise and Cortisol
Exercise is a stress to the body. It is disrupting the equilibrium of your body, which your body interprets as stress. This means exercise will spike cortisol.
Chronically elevated cortisol will result in problems in your body, as I discussed earlier. However, studies show that regular exercise can improve your stress response, even though it acutely spikes cortisol acutely or right away.
So the answer is not to stop exercising all together. The answer is to figure out how to dose exercise so that your body responds favorably.
A common thing I’ve been told from my Evlo members is that they work out less frequently and intensely with my program, and yet they see more desirable changes in their bodies.
This change happens partly because of the exercise selection we are choosing – we are intentionally choosing exercises that load the muscles in the most effective ways with minimal joint stress. That results in better muscle adaptation with less painful joints. But it ALSO results in less overall stress on the body.
I talked last week about protein synthesis and how we need protein synthesis to build more muscle and recover from our workouts.
When we have elevated cortisol due to too much cardio, or too much of any exercise for that matter, our bodies may not be able to balance that increase in stress. Our anabolic hormones allow our bodies to recover from the stressors while we sleep, and when our cortisol is elevated, we can’t get as high-quality sleep.
We don’t repair our cells, and over time, our cells slow down and lead to a decline in healing. We can tell when this is happening in our bodies when our workouts become increasingly challenging and we have a harder time recovering and/or feeling joint pain.
Endurance exercise (exercising for more than an hour) can be very stressful to the body, to the joints; it’s very catabolic. Doing too much endurance exercise can throw those cortisol balances out of whack and reduce your ability to recover.
This is because you are putting out more cortisol than testosterone, making it very hard for you to put on muscle. Your body is too high on the catabolic side and not high enough on the anabolic side.
You can sometimes see this in the body composition of an endurance athlete vs. a sprinter. The endurance athlete is probably training much longer sessions but has much less muscle than the sprinter training for shorter periods of time.
So how can too much exercise lead to chronically elevated levels of cortisol and then all the adverse side effects that I laid out?
Some people can exercise intensely, cut their calories, and respond amazingly, see remarkable changes in their bodies, and have a perfectly healthy body their whole lives. But many women do the same routine and see adverse effects. How can that be?
Everyday Cortisol Levels
One piece of the answer is cortisol. I talked about how cortisol is released from a perceived threat, both physically, mentally, and emotionally. We can think of this as a stress bucket. I didn’t make up the stress bucket, I’ve heard it talked about a lot, and I think it’s a great analogy. Your body has a threshold for how much stress it can tolerate before the bucket overflows and causes problems in your body.
Any time you have stress in your life, the bucket fills up. It can range from relationship issues, a stressful job, moving across the country, family issues, or anything that keeps you up at night.
Some people’s buckets may be fuller than others. But once your stress bucket is overflowing, you don’t have space for the anabolic processes to come in. Your sleep is disrupted, you can’t recover from your workouts, and the stress can pile on and spiral.
I’ll use an example from my own life. When I was in physical therapy school, I was definitely in a state of burnout and elevated cortisol. I was stressed from an intense program; I was stressed about money, so I was trying to work on the side by teaching fitness classes and babysitting, going out on the weekends, not sleeping well, and exercising intensely 6-7 days/week.
And my body felt horrible. I looked thin, but my body felt like it was 90 years old. I felt fragile. My wrist hurt, my back was in pain, I started getting hip pain and had to limp around, I had night terrors, I had to nap every day because I was exhausted, and I was anxious. I was a typical illustration of someone who was burnt out, and my stress bucket was overflowing.
So although I looked “thin,” I wasn’t healthy. I had no muscle; I was just skin and bones. I got blood work done around that time, and it did not reflect what I looked like on the outside. My triglycerides and other inflammatory markers were all out of whack, and I’m sure I was dealing with some insulin resistance.
At 24, I should have been able to tolerate the workouts I was doing. But combined with my lifestyle of stress in the other areas, it overflowed my stress bucket and made me feel terrible.
So this is how two people could do the exact same exercise program, and one could respond great, and the other could potentially even gain weight.
SO many people are overworking and undereating in addition to full stress buckets just like I was. If I continued that lifestyle, I’m sure it would have lead to weight gain because of the cascading effects of cortisol.
This also illustrates the importance of hormones. I often hear from people, “I’m only 30, and I feel like I’m falling apart.” These stressors see no age. Although many people can compensate for years and decades for elevated cortisol, not everyone can. So if you’re listening to this and you’re feeling “too young” to feel so burnt out, you aren’t alone, and you aren’t a lost cause. I can say that I now sleep like a baby, I have no chronic pain, my doctor recently told me I’m “very healthy” after looking at my bloodwork, I feel emotionally stable. There’s no way in hell I could have started this business when I felt that burnt out; I didn’t have the emotional or mental bandwidth.
We often hear “exercise more and eat less” for weight loss, which isn’t true for everyone. Some people need to eat BETTER and exercise BETTER for their system. More exercise and less food can often stimulate a more stressful environment which can spike cortisol and not generate desirable results from your workouts.
So you may be wondering if you are overdoing it on your workouts, overflowing your stress bucket, and potentially leading yourself down this cortisol spiral, here are some symptoms to look for:
- Feeling like you’re running on empty
- Bloating (poor digestion)
- Fatigue, taking a long time to get going in the morning, needing lots of coffee
- Not sleeping well
- Joint pain
- Not feeling like you can recover quickly from your workout, constantly sore/etc.
- Feeling anxious for no particular reason
- Increased appetite
- Getting sick a lot – because if you’re constantly in fight or flight, your immune system can be affected
- Generally worn down/fatigued/burnt out
- Brain fog/decreased memory
- Depression, hard time concentrating
If you have these symptoms, seeing a functional medicine doctor who can measure these things is immensely helpful. And like I said, this is not medical advice, so please consult your doctor. These symptoms can also be many other things, I’m sure, and you can’t just blame your workouts – nutrition, lifestyle, environment, and so much more can be at play. So please see a doctor who will thoroughly scan all facets of your life.
BUT, there are some things you can play around within your workouts to see if these symptoms improve:
If you’re in a state where you’re feeling burnt out, the last thing you want to do is slam your body at the gym every day. I tend to see that the people prone to elevated cortisol are the people who are already slamming their bodies into the ground every day at the gym. They are already stressed at baseline; their bucket is already overflowing, so they need that intense workout to give them that cortisol “high.” From my experience, it’s usually not the people doing more gentle exercises like yoga and Pilates that are having these types of issues. I’m not saying you should do yoga and Pilates exclusively; I’m just saying that those people don’t TYPICALLY present with burnout symptoms.
If you’re in that camp of overdoing it on the exercise and feeling burnt out, it might be best to focus on nutrition and more gentle workouts that are still focused on building your muscle while your endocrine system can start to balance out. My suggestion would be to do the Evlo strength sessions, walking a few days/week, and ditch cardio and HIIT for a little while.
If you’re working out intensely every day, I’d also recommend taking a couple of your workouts out and sticking to 5 days/week and leisurely walks on your recovery days.
It doesn’t mean that you can never do HIIT or cardio again. Once your adrenal glands, blood sugar, and joints are given some time to reset and recover, you may decide to add it back in. I talked about how to ramp cardio down or up in last week’s episode.
I know this is hard for some people because they are so conditioned to believe they need to go hard or go home. They are also afraid they are going to gain weight. But as I discussed earlier, I hear from members ALL the time who say they have turned down the intensity and frequency by joining my program, and yet they see better results than they did with more frequent and intense workouts. And I’m sure that this is largely because of the modulation of cortisol.
One of the reasons I speculate that cortisol is playing a part in this is that I’ve heard from many of my clients that they are less hungry after starting Evlo. Remember that this goes back to improving the cortisol response and glucose regulation.
Please don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying intense workouts are bad. Intense, brief workouts can be beneficial to help you balance your insulin levels and hormones. But it may mean dosing it differently. You have to have the proper balance of exercise and recovery to see desirable results.
Let’s take a look at another scenario.
What if you are working out gently and still seeing these adverse effects? Maybe for someone like this, adding in a HIIT session could be beneficial. If you’re an Evlo member, you could try my Wednesday Cardio Burst class. Some studies show that an intense but brief workout session can spike cortisol, resetting it in a way so that it can fall again back to a lower level.
So altering the intensity and frequency of your workout is my first suggestion. But some other things to consider adding in that are a bit more obvious are breathing and meditation.
I do hesitate to say that because I think people think they can continue with their intense and frequent routine, but just add meditation and breathing on top and be fine. And it doesn’t work like that. Let’s go back to the bucket analogy. If the bucket is overflowing, you have to take something out of the bucket. Not changing your stressors but just adding meditation would be like allowing the bucket to overflow every day, but putting a towel down, so it doesn’t get as wet on the floor. So adding meditation without adjusting your workouts is a bandaid, not a solution.
Meditation increases frontal lobe activity. You are interrupting the patterning of stress – improving parasympathetic, which improves sleep. When you can get more/better sleep, you can recover better, actually build stronger muscles, improve your metabolism, mood, energy, and more.
This is why we do savasana at the end of every workout. We are trying to modulate the acute stress that happens after an acute cortisol event. But meditation can be in different forms – listening to music, journaling, reading.
Another thing to improve your cortisol balance is to prioritize sleep overtraining. I always say that I would much rather you work out four days/week and get an extra 3 hours of sleep/week than workout seven days/week and get three fewer hours. Someone who is training a lot but not sleeping enough will not see the results from those training sessions, and I guarantee the person who is getting more and better sleep would be able to run laps around the person that is training more frequently but getting worse sleep.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to dial it back intermittently, depending on what’s going on in your life.
When you go through particularly emotionally or mentally stressful times, dial it back on the intensity. If you get in a car wreck, or lose your job, or are having relationship issues, the last thing you want to do is grind your body into the ground when your stress bucket is fuller than usual. Give yourself some grace. You will backtrack yourself more if you overstress yourself than you would if you just do a bit less than you usually do.
If you’re doing my cardio burst classes, maybe take those out. Maybe go to 4 workout days/week instead of 5 or supplement one of my meditation classes instead of a workout. This will keep you from overflowing your stress bucket and losing muscle, potentially gaining weight, and draining yourself of energy.
You can make additional tweaks with your nutrition, mental health, and sleep, but I like to refer to those professionals for advice outside my expertise. Soon, I’m hoping to have some experts in those areas on the podcast, too, so stay tuned!
I hope this was helpful. Again, my mission is to be a player in changing the standard for the fitness industry. The “go hard or go home” mentality is antiquated and just doesn’t work for most people long-term.
If you’re ready to join Evlo, you can go to evlofitness.com! I teach new classes M-F, and you can take this little quiz that gives you a suggested schedule which is nice because you can just show up for class and let me do the programming. We have joint-friendly but extremely effective lifting classes. We aren’t doing a million deadlifts or burpees, but slow, methodical, biomechanically driven exercise, Pilates classes, yoga, meditation, HIIT, and low-impact cardio.