Wednesday 13 January 2021 11:00 am

Stress and exercise: How stop OD-ing on cortisol

When stress affects the brain, the body feels the pain. Stress is the body’s reaction to feeling threatened or under pressure. It can make you feel angry, nervous and frustrated, impacting everything from sleep to appetite and mood. A little bit of stress is okay, it helps us get the job done when we’ve got a deadline to meet, makes us feel alert and excited, and can help boost our immune system. This is what we call good stress. But too much of it can leave us feeling off balance, anxious and depressed⁠. Cortisol is the key.

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Managing stress

Stress means different things to different people and we all handle stress in different ways. We might not be able to manage the source of stress, but we can manage the way we deal with it. Too much alcohol, poor diet and lack of sleep are just some of the factors that can make us feel worse. Exercise is often used to release stress, but when your body and mind are feeling overwhelmed, a workout might be the last thing you need. 

Cortisol, what is it?

When we feel stressed, our bodies release Cortisol. Often labelled the bad guy, Cortisol is a natural hormone that’s vital to the healthy function of the body and mind, controlling our blood sugar levels, metabolism and blood pressure. 

Without it, we wouldn’t last more than 24 hours. But when we feel stressed, Cortisol is also responsible for physical changes like an increase in heart rate, tensing of muscles, and that feeling of raised hairs on your arms and goosebumps on the back of your neck. This is our fight or flight response, with the body is on hyper alert mode and poised to react.

The link between cortisol and exercise

Cortisol levels are naturally higher in the morning, this is what helps give us that burst of energy we need to get out of bed. Those levels gradually reduce throughout the day unless our adrenal glands are triggered to produce more, which is often because of stress. 

When we workout, our brain treats exercise as a form of stress and our Cortisol levels go up. If you’ve ever tried a hardcore HIIT workout after a stressful day and been left feeling like a quivering jelly at the end of it, you’ll know what I mean. The more intense the workout, the more your muscles work and the more Cortisol is released.

It may sound counterintuitive to dial back your current fitness routine but if your mental and emotional stress levels are already high, adding intense exercise to the mix will leave you feeling snappy instead of happy.  

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Balancing cortisol

Try matching your workout to your mental health, start thinking about training your brain as well as your biceps. Here is my top 5 ways to stabilise Cortisol:

  • Alternate high intensity exercises with strength exercises
  • Eat post workout
  • Less is more, exercise little and often
  • Workout in the late afternoon or early evening when cortisol levels are naturally lower
  • Get 7 or 8 hours sleep a night

We may not be able to change the high stress culture we live in, but we can change the way we manage it. 

Claire Cole is the founder of Movement for Minds. Click the link for an introductory 99p offer and to try her signature D-Stress workout series.