Could Your Workouts be Stressing You Out?
You’ve heard about cortisol and its reputation for being a ruthless stress hormone that contributes to everything from belly fat to aging. You’ve probably also heard that exercise is a great way to squash its negative effects. But did you know that some workouts can actually increase cortisol? Here’s how to be cortisol-conscious with your fitness routine, and make sure your workouts are busting stress rather than causing it.
What's The Deal With Cortisol?
Cortisol gets a bad wrap, but it plays an important role in our ability to protect ourselves from danger. When triggered, it helps to shut down less critical functions like immunity and reproduction, so you can quickly switch into ninja-warrior mode and tackle an immediate physical threat.
While this “fight-or-flight” response was crucial for our paleolithic ancestors when they needed to outrun a predator, it causes problems when it’s regularly activated by the psychological stress of modern times.
Why Too Much Cortisol is Bad
Cortisol converts protein in your body to glucose, so you have the energy to fight or run away from dangerous threats. But this type of response doesn't serve us well when the majority of our threats are everyday occurrences like stress at work, paying bills, or lack of sleep. Our cortisol levels are often too high for too long.
Over time, the effects of too much cortisol can decrease musculature, increase abdominal fat, and puts you at risk for diabetes and depression. So, it's important to keep your cortisol levels in check if you want to be a healthy modern human.
What’s The Deal With Exercise and Cortisol?
If you suspect that the solution to our contemporary cortisol problem is more exercise -- you are right! After a good workout, you feel great because exercise dilutes the negative effects of cortisol and boosts your feel-good hormones.
But here’s the catch,
Exercise can sometimes do the opposite and actually increase your cortisol response.
Because your body interprets exercise as a form of stress. Extremely tough workouts -- the kind that makes you feel like you might puke or pass out -- can significantly increase stress hormones like cortisol your body. Yikes!
We aren’t suggesting that you never hit it hard at the gym, but choosing an extreme intensity workout could be adding fuel to the cortisol fire during particularly stressful times in life.
So what are you supposed to do if working out is your go-to stress buster? The answer is to keep it cortisol-conscious.
The idea isn’t too complicated. During times in life when you’re going through a big change, or under a lot of pressure, choose exercise activities that are a little more gentle. Cortisol-conscious workouts aim to give you an effective workout without triggering your body’s stress response.
You can achieve this by turning down the intensity and choosing things like water aerobics or yoga instead of HIIT. Or, just opt for shorter durations (less than 30 minutes) of your favorite physical activities. It’s that simple.
Don't want to give up your HIIT workouts? Don't worry; there’s a solution. Make it cortisol-conscious by fitting in more rest days, and alter with days of lower intensity activity. Consider leaving the more intense sessions to later in the day when your cortisol is naturally lower, and make sure to get enough carbohydrates and protein after exercise to reduce the cortisol response.
It’s all about balance and not overdoing it when you are already feeling the weight of the world. So be sweet to yourself when you are going through difficult times, and don’t overdo it. Remember to listen to your body, and incorporate more stress-reducing habits like meditation, walking, and spending time with friends and family.
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