Vigorous exercise can be one of the best stress busters out there. What could be more empowering than finishing a tough CrossFit workout? Or more freeing than leaving work behind on an evening run? For some people, strenuous workouts can rejuvenate the mind and body. For others, especially those prone to chronic stress, these intense forms of exercise can actually leave them feeling depleted and do more harm than good.
Why? It all has to do with that hormone called cortisol. You may know it as one of our “stress hormones.” While cortisol has crucial roles in the body, too much can wreak havoc on your health—and the wrong workout could push you into unhealthy cortisol territory.
The role of cortisol in the body—and why too much is not your friend.
Cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, can be an amazing thing. When exposed to “real” stress (e.g., a lunging tiger, or, more realistically nowadays, an oncoming car), cortisol kicks off a cascade of very useful physiological reactions. For example, glucose is released into the bloodstream so your brain has ample fuel to manage the situation, and nonessential body systems, like digestion and reproduction, are temporarily put into “sleep mode” so you can optimally deal with the threat. In short, cortisol is a great survival tool.
But now, our “tigers” are things like demanding bosses, a leaky roof, stop-and-go traffic, or even our children. They can also be memories of traumatic experiences or situations like divorce. Our modern stressors may not be life-threatening, but they can still feel soul-crushing. In response to these unavoidable triggers, cortisol ends up chronically elevated for some people.
Persistently elevated cortisol has a detrimental effect on the body. It can lead to anxiety, depression, weight gain, heart problems, sleep disorders, digestive issues, headaches, and memory impairment.Research also links it to chronic pain.
Why you should consider “cortisol-conscious” exercise.
Studies show that high-intensity exercise like CrossFit or runningcauses a temporary rise in cortisol levels. For some people, this doesn’t cause a problem. Cortisol levels begin returning to normal as quickly as 15 minutes post-workout.
Those needing to manage the psychological and physiological effects of cortisol, however, may need to carefully consider the form of exercise they engage in. Often, these are the people who feel completely depleted (not energized) after a workout and have difficulty recovering. The good news: Some forms of exercise, like yoga, are shown to have a positive effect on cortisol. For example, a study found that after even just one session of hatha yoga, participants were better able to handle stress (as measured by their own perception and their cortisol response) versus controls.
The most stressed among us could benefit from avoiding forms of exercise that raise cortisol in favor of gentler movement that also requires mindfulness. During yoga or Pilates sessions, for example, it’s important to focus on form and how your body feels in any given position. Mindfulness helps decrease the effects of stress by not only reducing cortisol but other stress markers such as c-reactive protein, blood pressure, heart rate, triglycerides, and tumor necrosis factor-alpha.
In addition to yoga and Pilates, walking, slow jogging, swimming, and a variety of lower-intensity boutique fitness classes (like the Lit Method) are all great examples of cortisol-conscious workouts.