Did you know you can help manage your cortisol levels with exercise? And that this can lead to weight loss, lower blood pressure, and better sleep?
Cortisol is a hormone that is released by the adrenal cortex – a gland that sits on top of your kidneys. It’s what helps you respond to an emergency such as fleeing from a dangerous situation, or even something more mundane like running to catch your bus.
We all get stressed throughout the day from parenting, sitting in traffic, busy work schedules, trying to fit in a workout, and paying bills. These challenges lead to physical, emotional, psychological, and metabolic stressors on our bodies. And one way our bodies respond to this stress is to release cortisol.
What does Cortisol do?
Cortisol manages stress by triggering different systems. This directs your available resources to deal with the immediate threat or stressor.
It does this by increasing blood sugar, regulating metabolism, regulating salt and water balance, and decreasing T-cell production, amino acid and calcium absorption and inflammation. These acute changes in the body are perfect for imminent threat, but prolonged periods can be detrimental.
It can lead to an increase in:
- Blood glucose levels
- Blood pressure
- Abdominal fat
- Craving for food with trans fats and sugar
- Fatigue and sleep disturbances
And a decrease in:
- Immune function
- Muscle and bone formation
How is Cortisol managed by exercise?
Exercise is a physical and mental stressor and plays a significant role on cortisol levels. Cortisol is released to assist in raising our blood sugar (called gluconeogenesis) through alternate sources (e.g. amino acids, fat, glycogen) to provide fuel to the working muscles.
Cortisol is also part of the inflammatory response, which is important for recovery from an injury. Acute or short-term rises in cortisol are not harmful, but chronically high cortisol can pose negative health effects as listed above. The design of your workout or the type of exercise you engage with plays a role in this response.
Specific ways you can exercise to lower your stress level
- Intensity: Light and moderate intensity exercise such as a brisk walk at 40-75% of your maximum heart rate or yin yoga leads to decreases in cortisol 30 minutes after exercise. It’s also shown to enhance our mood and relieve stress by decreasing other stress hormones.
Higher intensity exercise (e.g. resistance training, plyometrics, sprints) leads to increases in cortisol during and after exercise in order to raise blood sugar (for quick energy) and to enhance other hormones such as epinephrine to help you perform optimally.
- Time: Workouts that are at a light intensity and shorter than 60 minutes are beneficial in reducing cortisol. Workouts longer than 60 minutes lead to an increase in cortisol because without supplementation (e.g. carbohydrates, sports beverage), your body will need to create more energy to meet the demands of the exercise.
- Training status: Regular exercise and being consistent with your routine can benefit cortisol regulation and stress management. Resistance training studies have demonstrated that after 4, 8, and 12 weeks of training leads to decreases in cortisol before and after workouts compared to week 1. .
- Type: Exercises that use a variety of muscles groups (e.g. walking, squats) have a stronger effect on cortisol than isolated exercises (e.g. leg extensions).
Participating in regular exercise (minimum of 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week) is ideal for regulating cortisol levels, and has a beneficial effect on other hormones such as testosterone, estrogen, insulin, and growth hormone.
For stress release during a busy or stressful day, try going for a 20-30 minute brisk walk instead of a hard workout to decrease cortisol levels, reduce perceived stress, and boost productivity.
This combined with proper diet and quality sleep, and maintaining work-life balance and psychological health will help you manage your stress and optimize your hormonal balance.affecting your sleep, try moving it to another time in the day.