rē•spin Your Workouts with Cortisol-Conscious Exercise
Getting intentional about the way you work out can help manage stress.
With fast-paced lifestyles a cultural norm, there is no shortage of the stress response; some of us navigate the world in seemingly permanent states of fight or flight. From balancing demanding careers and busy personal lives to navigating the uncertainty of unprecedented times, it’s easy to spend much of our time ‘doing’ instead of ‘being.’
While regular exercise might seem like more ‘doing,’ it comes down to the type of exercise you opt for. This is especially true during periods of high stress, which the body responds to with a spike in cortisol (i.e., the ‘stress’ hormone that acts as an alarm system when we are in the midst of fight-or-flight moments). You might be inclined to hit the pavement and run from stress, but in reality, a practice that engages the parasympathetic state of relaxation would be more therapeutic. In moments like these, high-impact forms of exercise like running, CrossFit, jump rope, and burpees can do more harm than good. This is especially true for those with chronically high cortisol levels, or if exercise goals include weight loss since cortisol is known to cause excessive weight gain.
In these instances, cortisol-conscious exercise is the answer — a way to rē•vamp your fitness regimens by syncing your workouts to the body’s needs.
The Cortisol of It All
Cortisol is the body’s main stress response hormone and is ultra beneficial in dangerous situations. It can even be helpful in everyday moments, like when someone cuts us off on the highway, and we need to act fast to avoid a collision. However, cortisol becomes a problem when we spend too much time activating it. Because it can be triggered simply by scrolling on our phones for too long (because who knows what stressful things are waiting on the other side of our screens), it can be elevated for prolonged states and become problematic.
While cortisol can be a literal lifesaver and is an important function of our body, it requires a lot of energy to function in such an activated state. So much so that it reduces other functions of the body that aren’t essential in moments of danger. When our stress response overstays its welcome, long-term cortisol spikes can impact our health. We might experience high blood pressure, excessive weight gain, bloating, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), acne, irritability, headache, and anxiety.
It’s no secret that regular exercise has incredible benefits — not just physically but also mentally. Working out regularly is a great habit that can help reduce stress and wind down from the day. But, just like the food we eat, not all exercise is a one-size-fits-all matter where the stress response is concerned. For example, according to Dani Schenone, a Product Marketing Manager & RYT at Mindbody, those who experience chronic high cortisol levels might benefit from cortisol-conscious exercise instead of high impact workouts, which can cause temporary cortisol spikes.
“A cortisol-conscious workout is a new way of describing a high-intensity, low-impact interval training modality,” explains Schenone. “It seeks to reduce prolonged, elevated levels of cortisol in the body that usually come with more high-impact, intense workouts,” she adds. In addition to being a great option for those with consistent and persistent stress responses, Schenone says cortisol-conscious workouts are also a great choice for beginners because they are low-impact and can prevent one from “becoming overtrained or getting injured.”
Another benefit of cortisol-conscious workouts is that they “encourage us to tap into our breath and focus on building muscular endurance and flexibility,” says Nicole Uribarri, a National Program Director and Founding Instructor at bande. With that in mind, these types of workouts can increase overall mindfulness as well as “reduce levels of the body’s stress hormones and stimulate the production of endorphins, the hormones that make us happy,” Uribarri explains. Additionally, because these exercises don’t put the same strain on our joints and muscles that high-impact workouts do, “they can be practiced and performed for longer periods,” Uribarri adds. Finally, as Schenone also mentions, there is less chance of injury because workouts are lower impact and “tend to be paced slower with a heightened awareness to form and technique, allowing the body to move mindfully and go deeper into certain positions,” says Uribarri.
What Are Cortisol-Conscious Workouts?
Examples of cortisol-conscious workouts include barre, pilates, yoga, and walking, each with its own unique benefits (on top of reducing cortisol). Uribarri recommends varying workouts and incorporating them into your regimens three to four times per week for best results.
Barre is a low-impact workout that “consists of a series of micro-movements and active holds,” explains Uribarri. “These small, isolated movements target your low-twitch muscle fibers used for endurance activities,” she adds. Another benefit is that barre workouts are typically rhythmically based — after all, they are inspired by ballet — which means “you’ll work larger muscle groups at a steady pace, which spike your heart rate and give you a bonus cardio workout,” Uribarri adds.
While cortisol can wreak havoc on the metabolism, a pilates workout has the opposite effect. “This low-impact, high-intensity class [is] known for its focus on core stabilization [and] combines all the best elements of strength and resistance training,” says Uribarri. “Resistance training is great for muscular endurance and metabolism. Higher metabolism leads to more energy and better results.”
On the other hand, Yoga is where it’s at when it comes to de-stressing. “This practice of linking breath and movement can assist in lowering blood pressure and heart rate,” explains Uribarri. “Poses that stretch the spine by incorporating the four ranges of motions (flexion, extension, rotation, and lateral flexion) stimulate blood flow, combat fatigue, and alleviate stress,” she adds.
Lastly, going for a walk has incredible health benefits beyond the movement. In fact, walking is known to lower blood pressure, which is a common side effect of prolonged stress. On top of that, studies show that a twenty-minute walk can actually reduce stress hormones (hello, cortisol), not to mention immersing you in the greatest healer of all: nature.
The Fitness Conundrum
While strengthening and connecting to your body through exercise is non-negotiable, knowing how to adapt your workouts to your body needs is an additional tool. Remembering Ayurveda’s emphasis on balance, you can learn to stimulate or relax your nervous system and cortisol using physical movement as medicine. For example, when you’re stressed out, you might naturally feel compelled to practice a high-intensity workout… but it can be downright transformational to learn to induce the relaxation response when your stress response is running so high. After all, taking periodic pauses and cortisol-conscious classes to restore homeostasis is what can bring you back to your centered baseline on the wellness journey.