If you’re suffering from high cortisol and excess stress, you might think you need a training break. But completely avoiding exercise is not the solution. Elevated cortisol has several negative effects on the body, which will only be made worse if you quit training:
- High cortisol breaks down muscle mass, leading to strength and muscle loss.
- As cortisol goes up, insulin sensitivity is impaired and the body’s ability to burn fat is reduced.
- The ability to sleep and manage anxiety get impaired.
- Cortisol receptors become resistant, resulting in the HPA axis that governs hormone release getting out of balance.
Therefore, it’s essential that you adapt your training when working to overcome high cortisol.
General Training Recommendations
People often think that if they’re dealing with high cortisol, they should back off heavy lifting. This is not the case because lifting heavy loads will allow you to maintain muscle and strength. Intensity doesn’t impact cortisol release much compared to volume. Therefore, you want to lower the volume and lengthen rest periods.
For example, where you might have trained 4 to 5 sets, drop your volume back to 2 to 3 sets. As your cortisol begins to balance, you can work back up to a higher volume, but this won’t happen overnight. 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.
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 high cortisol 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 the key is to find a conditioning mode that you enjoy and allows you to feel energized once you’re done.
We know for certain that meditation has a profound impact on stress, 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 cortisol levels. Other mind-body practices that will likely convey stress reduction benefits include most martial arts, deep breathing, regular stretching or foam rolling, and dancing.
If you’re not getting proper nutrition, or you’re skipping meals all over the place, cortisol balance is futile.
The first step is to eat at set meal times because eating resets 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.
Overcoming high cortisol 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:
- Healthy, nourishing nutrition
- The minimal dose of effective exercise, and
- Mind-body activities that help you calm your racing mind and cope with anxiety.