For many people, nothing feels better after a long and stressful day than hitting a good workout. When you’re overworked (or just an overthinker), it can be downright therapeutic to break a sweat during a good weightlifting session or long run.
We investigated the latest science on exercise to find out if more intense workouts could actually be causing a different kind of stress: a physical kind. Keep reading for answers on whether you should rethink your workout routine --- or if you can keep on doing what you enjoy!
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What hormones play a role in stress?
“Stress” might feel pretty negative, but without it, we probably wouldn’t have survived as a species for very long. When we’re faced with a dangerous situation, our sympathetic nervous system goes into action and triggers that “fight or flight” reaction, helping us handle the trigger and get through it alive. It does this with the help of three different hormones: adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol.
Adrenaline and norepinephrine are responsible for that quick and immediate surge of energy and focus you feel when you’re faced with something nerve-wracking: they get your heart racing to deliver blood to your muscles more quickly, and your breathing quickens to maximize your oxygen intake. Cortisol, the “stress hormone,” makes adjustments to your metabolism to make sure you have quick access to energy in case you need to make a run for it.
The final stress hormone, cortisol, is one of the most interesting when it comes to our modern-day stressors. Most of us are no longer running away from predators on a regular basis; instead, our stress tends to be chronic and long-term, stemming from nagging issues like money troubles and work pressure. This can lead to stress levels that always seem to be high, and cortisol levels that are always spiking.
Unfortunately, when your cortisol levels are too high and for too long, it can impact both your physical goals, breaking down muscle tissue and promoting abdominal fat. It can also lead to a host of other issues like brain fog, poor sleep, and adrenal fatigue. It’s even been linked to health problems like weight gain and heart disease when left unchecked!
Exercises that can help manage stress hormones
When it comes to normalizing out-of-control stress hormones, consistent exercise is one of the best medicines available.
Regular physical activity can help lower your stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. It can even cause you to release feel-good brain chemicals like serotonin to give you a mood boost (ever heard of runner’s high?). In addition, exercise, especially when paired with a good diet, can help you get to a healthier weight, which can help regulate your stress hormone levels even more.
Exercise is also a good idea for people who suffer from the opposite issue: low cortisol levels. There’s evidence that people with PTSD (a demographic with low baseline cortisol levels) can benefit from regular aerobic activity.
Some exercises that have been shown to help manage stress and improve feelings of well-being include moderate aerobic activities, “meditative” mind-body movements, and resistance exerciseslike:
Are there exercises you should avoid when you’re stressed?
While moderate exercise is a good idea for helping you manage your stress hormones, there’s also evidence that higher-intensity workouts can trigger surges in your cortisol levels when compared to more moderate exercise. Certain workouts that are specifically designed to push you to your limits are very physically stressful, and this can trigger your stress hormones in the same way that your mental stressors do.
To be clear, though, this increase in circulating cortisol levels is generally temporary, and they tend to return to baseline after the workout is completed. There also isn’t enough evidence as of now to suggest that this acute spike in cortisol is reason enough to avoid these workouts completely in otherwise healthy individuals. Regular physical activity of any kind is regularly recommended by medical experts as a lifestyle intervention for managing stress and overall health, and there are no official caveats as to how intense those exercises may be.
With that said, some researchers are more concerned about chronic overtraining, or not giving yourself enough time to rest and recover in between intense exercise sessions. Overtraining syndrome, a condition that manifests itself in chronic fatigue and burnout, can be triggered when you compound stressful events with an exercise routine that’s too intense and which doesn’t give you enough time to rest and recover properly between sessions. Unfortunately, they also find that overtraining syndrome has been linked to issues like adrenal insufficiency that can impact your production of stress hormones.
So while these intense exercises themselves might not be a problem on their own, you might want to take a closer look at your overall training habits to ensure that you aren’t overdoing it.
Exercises known to cause (temporary) spikes in cortisol
It bears repeating that the temporary spike in cortisol is not a reason to avoid doing the exercises that you love. But knowing the potential impact of the workouts you choose could help you plan accordingly --- and, as always, keeping an eye on how your unique body responds to your fitness activities.
High-intensity interval training (HIIT)
HIIT has become a hugely popular exercise for people short on time and looking to get as much out of their workout as possible. These workouts are designed to get your heart rate to as close to its maximum as possible, which is physically stressful and can cause a pretty big cortisol spike during the workout. Similar high-intensity fitness classes like CrossFit or “bootcamp”-style training can affect your hormones in the same way.
Working out for really long periods of time (like you might see with long-distance running or marathoners) can also contribute to your elevated stress hormones. One review of several studies found that cortisol levels were most likely to increase during aerobic exercise sessions that lasted over 60 minutes at moderate to high intensities in healthy individuals.
One study tested participants of several different kinds of combat sports, including karate, sumo, judo, and wrestling. The researchers found that participants of all the sports saw increases in cortisol, adrenaline, and testosterone. Interestingly, the tested hormones also indicated that athletes who participated in karate saw higher levels of stress than the other disciplines.
Tips for getting your stress under control
While adjusting your workouts is one way to keep sky-high cortisol in check, it’s not the only tool in your toolkit. Here are some other things you can try:
Monitor your cortisol levels. When it comes to stress, it’s one thing to feel like it’s affecting your physical body, but it’s a whole other thing to know for sure. Base’s Stress Testmeasures your stress hormone levels, giving you actual metrics to make more informed decisions about your workout routine.
Prioritize your sleep. Under normal circumstances, your body releases its highest levels of cortisol early on in the morning to trigger the start of your day and bottoms out close to bedtime, but disrupted sleep cycles can mess with this normal cycle. Sticking to a regular bedtime and avoiding screentime in the hours leading up to sleep can encourage a better night’s sleep.
Practice mindfulness. We often find ourselves distracted and thinking about the next thing on our to-do lists in this day and age, which can contribute to excessive and chronic stress. Practicing breathwork, meditation, and being in the moment can help you recenter.
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Exercise is a natural de-stressor, but overdoing it when you’re especially stressed could potentially backfire. Remember, you want to leave your exercise feeling energized, not drained! Listening to your body — and taking appropriate hormone tests — can help you get the most out of your workouts.