OK…so I received a lot of questions about cortisol after writing my post about why working out less may be the best idea for your waist line. If you haven’t read that post already, go check it out. The general gist of it though, for those of you who don’t want to go back is this: I have switched out a lot of my long, intense workouts for shorter HIIT workouts and low impact steady state (LISS) workouts in an attempt to reduce cortisol levels, recover better, prevent injury and see the results I want faster.
The biggest thing most people took away from the article (and the thing people had a lot of questions about) is cortisol and how it affects your body. SO, I thought it would be a good idea to go a little deeper and investigate cortisol further. In this post, I will break down (as easily as possible) what cortisol is, what it does, how it affects our bodies, what it has to do with exercise and how to balance it for optimal health. So let’s get into it!
What is Cortisol?
Cortisol is one of the steroid hormones naturally found in your body. It is made in the adrenal gland and it is often referred to as the “stress hormone” although it affects and regulates a lot of bodily functions beyond stress such as:
- controls blood sugar levels
- regulates metabolism
- helps reduce inflammation
- and assists the brain with forming memories
So, all of that being said, it is a very important hormone in our bodies. The problem is when we have TOO much cortisol forming in our bodies. Too much cortisol can lead to:
- Weight gain
- An increase in belly fat
- Sleep disorders
- Low libido
- Irritability (among other symptoms)
Basically, having too much cortisol production due to chronic stress can really wreak havoc on your body AND your waist line.
When and Why is Cortisol Released?
In our bodies, cortisol is released to help regulate bodily functions as explained above…BUT it is also released in reaction to stress. That is why it gets the nickname “the stress hormone”. When your body recognizes that it is in a moment of stress, cortisol gets released from the adrenal gland and gives you that fight of flight rush we are all familiar with. This is your body’s way of preparing you to make a quick decision under stress…it’s our natural way of being able to protect ourselves from potentially dangerous situations, which is a good thing.
Now, for this post, I am specifically talking about cortisol in relation to exercise. There are many other ways that cortisol levels are increased in the body like: through some prescription medications, depression, chronic life stress, anxiety disorders…among many others. But I want to focus on exercise…everyone’s personal life is different and we all have varying levels of stress from life alone. If you suffer from a lot of stress, I really recommend reaching out to your doctor for some medical advice and help.
SO, when speaking about exercise…how does cortisol play a part? Well, exercise puts your body under stress. And unfortunately, our bodies don’t know the difference between good stress and bad stress- it just senses stress and releases cortisol in response to that stress. Shitty, I know…but it’s true!
There has been a lot of research devoted to analyzing what types of workouts release excessive cortisol and how to keep those excessive levels at bay. I have read through many different articles on the topic and the general consensus is this:
Too many super high intensity workouts that last over 30-40 minutes cause increased cortisol levels. So in other words, hour long bootcamps, constantly logging super long runs and HIIT sessions that lasts longer than 40 minutes all put your body in a stressed state that causes it to produce more cortisol.
Are You’re Cortisol Levels High?
Do you workout all the time, eat healthy and still have stubborn pounds or belly fat that just won’t budge? I know I do! This is definitely a sign of high cortisol levels. Do you workout sometimes twice a day, eat well and still aren’t completely happy with how your body looks? I have been there!
The answer, in a lot of these cases is cortisol. Once I did this research and changed up the way I worked out, I noticed a difference. The difference is gradual, but noticeable. I notice my abs look more defined, I have dropped some weight, my waist is thinner and I am more at ease. These are all signs of lower cortisol levels and all I did was change the way I workout by: WORKING OUT LESS. Sounds counterintuitive BUT so does working out so hard day in and day out while still struggling to shed that layer of fat that won’t budge.
Reducing the stress you put your body under will reduce the amount of cortisol you produce, which will help you achieve the results you want with diet and exercise. Period.
So What Do You Do to Balance it Out?
I really recommend going back and reading about the way I changed my workouts! I used to be someone who would log at least one 60 minute HIIT bootcamp style class a day…and would often double up because I thought more was better. And while I wasn’t eating more, I was still holding on to a layer of fat around my middle that wouldn’t budge…so I thought about changing things up. And I am SO happy I did! My body responded so well, I am more at ease, my recovery process is easier and I just generally feel better and more energized.
If you do a lot of long, super intense workouts, I recommend doing them only 2-3 times per week and sprinkling in some low impact steady state (LISS) hikes like my stair hike, walks, yoga, reformer pilates and swimming. All of these workouts are low impact and keep your heart rate pretty steady- no crazy up and down spikes that will cause your body to go into stress mode. Plus, keeping it at a steady state also keeps you in the fat burning zone….which is where we want to be right??
You don’t have to quite your favorite workouts, just re-think how you do them and how often you do them. For instance, if you LOVE Barry’s like I do…go once or twice a week instead of 5 days a week. Getting in that cardio workout is great for your heart, so don’t cut it out completely…just cut back! In my last post on this topic, I talk about my love for the Sweat App. I do the 28 minute HIIT workouts 2-3 times per week and I love that they are short, to the point and really get me sweaty without putting my body under extreme stress for a prolonged period of time.
For me, I find exercise to be a stress RELIEF, so I want my brain to feel the same way. It was such a bummer to find out that I was putting my self UNDER too much stress! So working out this way allows me to reap the benefits of the exercise for stress relief and reduced cortisol levels at the same time. WIN WIN!
And the interesting part of all of this is this: I thought I would gain weight if I worked out less, but in fact I have LOST weight by working out less and working out smarter. My body has responded so well. I know I don’t have much weight to lose and losing weight isn’t really my goal BUT, my body is naturally shedding unnecessary pounds now that my stress and cortisol levels are in check…which is pretty incredible. Plus, since I’m not getting dripping-wet-in-sweat sweaty every single day, I have to wash my hair less! This is major for me haha!
Do you suffer from high cortisol levels? Are you ready to make a change and see some changes?
Let me know what you think and if this works for you too!