If stress is an all-the-time reality for you, it’s reasonable to think that you need an exercise break. After all, it’s not like you have the time to fit workouts in and even if you did, your energy level is pretty much stuck on empty.
But completely avoiding exercise and adopting a sedentary lifestyle is not the solution you’re looking for. In fact, being completely sedentary can actually exacerbate stress-related problems!
Of course, high-intensity training, CrossFit, or training for a marathon isn’t the answer either. Unfortunately, many high achievers think training harder is the solution. They think they can will themselves out of fatigue. This madcap training is only going to intensify cortisol issues and make you feel worse in the long run.
This article will provide exercise recommendations for finding the sweet spot in between a complete break from exercise and all-out workouts that leave you depleted and crying on the locker room floor.
Let’s start by explaining how your body’s stress response functions:
It all starts with something called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis). The HPA axis is the system of organs that release hormones, including the stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline.
The hypothalamic and pituitary are both in the brain, whereas the adrenal glands are located above the kidneys.
These three organs work closely together in a cascade-like fashion. When one releases a hormone, it will impact other hormones. When you suffer a stressor, whether it’s an annoying person on social media, traffic making you late for work, no time to eat, or a killer training run, your brain senses this.
The hypothalamus responds, releasing corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH), which travels to the pituitary gland and stimulates the release of another hormone called ACTH. ACTH travels to the adrenals to increase production of cortisol. The main purpose of cortisol is to release energy stores so that you’ll have the energy in your blood stream to help you cope with whatever challenging situation you’re in.
It’s important to understand that the HPA axis operates on feedback loops. A negative feedback loop occurs when the secreted hormone sends a message to receptors on the gland, decreasing further secretion of that hormone.
Cortisol provides a perfect example of how a negative feedback loop is supposed to work: You experience stress and CRH is released from the hypothalamus triggering ACTH from the pituitary, leading to cortisol release from the adrenals.
As cortisol enters the blood stream, it stimulates norepinephrine, which activates the sympathetic nervous system and turns on your flight or fight response. At this point, you should feel ready to take action—whether to outsprint an opponent, win a verbal fight, or solve a difficult mental problem at work. Hunger will be absent and you’ll feel no pain.
At the same time that all this is happening, your brain will sense the high cortisol level, and shut off release of CRH and ACTH release. Cortisol will begin to drop, leading to a decrease in norepinephrine activity, gradually calming you down.
In healthy people who don’t have much stress, the HPA axis is activated infrequently enough that it is able to stay healthy and responsive. However, in people who suffer chronic stress and anxiety, cortisol and norepinephrine are continuously overproduced. The body’s cortisol receptors become resistant to cortisol signals and the HPA axis becomes desensitized to the negative feedback telling it to “chill out.”
The hypothalamus and pituitary won’t respond to the negative feedback and will continue to release CRH and ACTH and the adrenals keep getting the message to pump out cortisol. The result is chronically high cortisol levels, which leads to any of the following negative symptoms:
- Difficulty sleeping despite being fatigued
- Anxiety and a racing mind
- Cravings for high-carb foods but lack of appetite for protein and healthy fat
- Difficulty recovering from workouts
- Frequent injuries
- Excess body fat, especially belly fat
- Feeling physically ill or as if you need something (such as caffeine) to help you make it through the day
- Low exercise tolerance: Feeling like you have no energy during training sessions
In this situation, training needs to be tailored to minimize the negative effects of stress. Your training should focus on achieving the following outcomes:
Maintain muscle mass by lifting weights. Elevated cortisol will erode muscle mass, leading to strength and muscle loss, so it’s important to counter this with lifting and proper nutrition.
Promote metabolic health (insulin sensitivity and fat burning). As cortisol goes up, insulin sensitivity is impaired. When you throw a high-carb diet into the mix, fat burning is reduced. Lifting and low-volume interval training can counter this by improving fat burning and restoring insulin sensitivity.
Ensure recovery. Lifestyle habits and high-quality nutrition will help with muscle recovery and enable the body to clear cortisol post-workout. Yoga, deep breathing, meditation, walking, and other mind-body practices can help.
What follows are some general training recommendations:
Typically, if your goal is to lose body fat, it’s recommended that you design workouts to have high volume and super short rest. This is not the case when dealing with adrenal issues.
Instead, you want to lower the volume and lengthen rest periods. What you don’t want to do is back off loads. It’s still important to lift moderately heavy weights in order to maintain muscle mass and strength. Heavy lifting with lower volume will minimize the cortisol response.
For example, where you might have trained 4 to 5 sets, drop your volume back to 2 to 3 sets. As your HPA axis begins to reset, you can work back up to a higher volume, but this won’t happen over night. Progressing slowly will give your body the time to recover and heal.
Body part splits are a good way to allow for more complete recovery in between workouts. To start, use rep ranges of 10 to 12 for 2 to 3 sets for multi-joint exercises, with 60 to 120 seconds rest. For assistance exercises (single-joint lifts), reps can be a little higher (12-15) and rest a little shorter. Progress to strength-focused workouts in which you train in rep ranges of 6 to 10 reps with 2 to 3 sets. If these protocols are leaving you completely wrecked, decrease the volume or increase rest periods even more.
Workouts should change every 3 to 4 weeks to ensure that the body keeps adapting. As you progress through the program, reps can be further ratcheted down with weights going up.
How many sessions per week?
Four workouts lasting 45 minutes to an hour will do the trick for most people. This will allow complete muscle recovery while getting you into a training habit that is sustainable.
A lot of people who are dealing with adrenal issues are also trying to lose body fat. Thus the inclination to do long, intense cardio workouts or high-intensity training. This approach is never going to get you where you need to be. Instead, you need to dial back your conditioning and focus on strategies that will help balance stress hormones.
The good news for those of you who like to get sweaty and push hard is that appropriately designed interval training can be used when dealing with adrenal issues.
For example, a low-volume sprint workout like the Wingate protocol (four 30-second sprint repeats on a bike with 4 minutes active rest) may help reset the HPA axis, while improving mood due to release of beta endorphins and dopamine that make you feel good. A 20 minute cycle workout consisting of 8-second intervals with 12-seconds easy pedaling is another option.
Of course, for some people, the idea of a sprint workout makes you want to lie down on the floor and take a nap. In this case, walking is your go-to cardio workout. Studies consistently show that walking can improve cortisol balance, while boosting mood and well being. Hiking in nature is especially effective, but what if it’s winter and your only option is to hit the treadmill?
The key is to enjoy your walk. Many people find pleasure from listening to podcasts or watching TV. While it might not be your very best option, if it lowers your stress and gets you moving, that’s all that matters.
Scientists stress consistency with whatever form of conditioning you choose. In one long-term Italian study, women with lowest adherence to a walking program had no improvement in cortisol levels, whereas those who completed the most sessions had a significant improvement in hormone balance.
We know for certain that meditation has a profound impact on the HPA axis, lowering cortisol and raising testosterone and growth hormone. What about exercise that requires you to slow down and become mindful?
Yoga, qi gong, tai chi, and judo have all been shown to reduce fatigue and lower inflammation, suggesting that mind-body activities may positively impact adrenal function. For example, a study of judo practitioners found that they had much lower levels of free radicals that cause inflammation in response to an exercise trial compared to a sedentary control group. Researchers believe that their judo training allows for a better functioning HPA axis and stress hormone balance.
Other mind-body practices that will likely convey stress reduction benefits include most martial arts, deep breathing, regular stretching or foam rolling, and dancing.
Nutrition & Adrenal Health
We would be remiss to not mention the primary role nutrition plays in improving HPA axis function. If you’re not getting proper nutrition, or you’re skipping meals all over the place, hormone balance is futile.
The first step is to eat at set meal times because eating rests your entire hormonal cascade and improves the body’s biological circadian rhythm. After you eat, cortisol is reduced, as is the hunger-causing hormone ghrelin, which allows for an increase in leptin, the hormone that blunts hunger.
High-quality food is also a priority: Every meal should be designed around a whole protein (meat, fish, eggs, dairy, beans or lentils), a healthy fat (most proteins contain fat but you can add some nuts, olive oil, or avocado for variety), and green vegetables.
Workout nutrition is the third factor to balancing stress hormones. Naturally, you don’t want to hit the gym floor with a full belly, but you should never go into a workout famished, having not eaten in the last 4 hours. Having a moderate meal of protein, healthy fat, and vegetables about 2 hours pre-workout is generally recommended.
Post-workout you want to have a combination of healthy carbs and protein. The amount and type of carbohydrates will vary depending on a variety of factors, but most people who are trying to lose body fat will benefit from a serving of fruit or other healthy carbs like sweet potato, millet, or quinoa with protein.
Be sure to drink water around your workout. Dehydration will significantly elevate cortisol and most people walk around chronically dehydrated.
A few nutrients may also be beneficial post-workout for helping to clear cortisol:
Vitamin C has been shown to lower cortisol post-workout and may elevate testosterone.
B vitamins, especially B5 (pantethine), are commonly depleted in people with elevated cortisol.
Magnesium has a calming effect on the nervous system and may help balance cortisol.
Taurine is an amino acid with antioxidant effects that may help mitigate stress.
Final Words: Dealing with adrenal issues can feel like a never-ending uphill battle in which you don’t have what it takes to get you where you need to be. It’s a time to give yourself a mental break (stop beating yourself up), while adopting the habits that are proven to work:
1) Healthy, nourishing nutrition
2) The minimal dose of effective exercise, and
3) Mind-body activities that help you calm your racing mind and cope with anxiety.