Always Stressed? Cortisol-Conscious Workouts Are Your Healthiest Bet
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 running causes 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.
Timing workouts appropriately can also minimize the cortisol surge.
Cortisol levels fluctuate throughout the day according to our circadian rhythms. They're highest in the morning upon waking then slowly decline through the afternoon. Some people get a second wind in the evening. We all know that there are "morning people" and "night owls," and this can be related to people's unique cortisol patterns.
Exercising at the right time for your body has been shown to minimize post-workout cortisol spikes. In other words, "morning people" who work out in the morning have lower cortisol spikes after exercise. Similarly, those who get a second wind of energy in the evening also have less dramatic rises is cortisol if they do their exercise at that time. People who exercise outside their peak time experience the biggest increases in post-workout cortisol as well as poorer performance.
Ask yourself: How does my body feel like moving today?
Intuitive movement is the practice of checking in with your body to see how it feels like moving or exercising at any particular moment. For example, you may have planned a 4-mile run during your lunch break, but you'd much rather settle into a deep pigeon pose. Alternatively, the sun may be shining and you feel that burning urge to just get out there and sweat—not to be stuck in a dark studio.
Intuitive movement, or intuitive exercise, may take a little time to get used to. After all, it requires a mind-body connection and a commitment to being still and tuned-in. But the benefit is that you decide what exercise will serve you best at any given time.
Bottom line: Make your workouts work for you.
Consider why you exercise. Maybe it's to improve body composition, enhance focus, increase endorphins, or reduce stress. Not all exercise is right for everybody. If you're prone to stress and the negative impacts of elevated cortisol, you might better serve your overall fitness and health goals by choosing cortisol-conscious workouts like yoga, Pilates, or any activity that leaves you feeling wonderful, not wiped.
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