Exercise and Stress

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We all live in a high-stress world, especially lately, and the ultimate key to your health and wellbeing is stress management. Many people turn to exercise to help them cope with stress, which can be a really great thing! However, there are certain times when particular kinds of exercise can actually make your stress worse. Keep reading to find out how you can best use exercise to help with your stress resilience.

Cortisol explained
Cortisol is your body’s stress hormone, produced by the adrenal glands. We tend to think of cortisol as a terrible thing that we don’t want any of, but that’s an overly simplified idea of what cortisol’s job is. We actually really need cortisol to stay alive and well. It is necessary for glucose metabolism, blood pressure control, and regulating inflammation.

Cortisol helps us feel alert, so we need it to spike when we get up in the morning, drop to moderate levels during the day with a few tiny ups and downs, and lower significantly at night so we can get a restful sleep. That pattern of cortisol levels is a healthy pattern. The problems come in when that healthy, natural pattern becomes disrupted.

When you experience a moderate amount of stress, the adrenal glands get overworked and produce more cortisol. Not only is the amount of total cortisol higher, but the normal curve starts to change shape. There tends to be a spike late at night and a flattened curve during the day, meaning cortisol levels are staying relatively high instead of dropping. In people who are chronically stressed, their bodies have been producing so much cortisol that we might begin to see adrenal fatigue.

What is adrenal fatigue?
When your body has been chronically stressed and producing lots of the stress hormone, cortisol, your adrenal glands eventually get worn out from producing so much of it for a long period of time and become “fatigued”. Then they end up producing inadequate amounts of cortisol needed for feeling alert and well. It can take quite a bit of time to recover once your body reaches this level of exhaustion. It becomes critical to rest, tackle sources of stress, nourish your body with foods that support the adrenal glands, and keep exercise to a minimum during this recovery period.

Keep reading to see what types of exercise will support your resilience to stress, depending on your current stress levels:

You experience a mild-moderate amount of stress
If you have a pretty small amount of stress in your life and you sleep well and eat nutritious foods, exercise at all intensities is great for you! Go as long as feels good to you, and really work up a sweat on days that you have lots of energy. You’ll get a mood-boosting rise of endorphins and your stress levels will decrease afterward. Your body is good at managing cortisol levels and, while exercise will cause a small spike in cortisol, it will actually end up even lower after you stop, making you feel even less stressed and more relaxed. You’ll sleep more easily too because your cortisol levels are lowering from an even lower amount due to exercising that day. Make sure you don’t exercise too close to bedtime, though. It takes some time for cortisol levels to drop after a spike. It’s also important to rest your body when you need to and save the high intensity workouts for days your body feels up to it. That balance is important for continuing to keep cortisol levels lower and with a normal pattern of spikes and dips.

Exercise ideas include:
HIIT (high intensity interval training)
Power yoga
Cycling, indoor or outdoor
Bootcamp or crossfit
Swimming laps
Weight training

You experience quite a lot of stress
While exercise does give you a boost of mood-elevating endorphins, it’s important to remember that it still does spike your cortisol during activity. If you are quite stressed, your body’s ability to regulate cortisol levels is impaired. Pay attention to your energy levels. You should feel more energized after activity, not fully exhausted. Your sleep cycle is also an important indicator of your body’s ability to manage stress. If you aren’t getting restful sleep for around 8 hours each night, rest needs to be a big priority.

Exercise ideas include:
Walking with some running intervals
Cycling, indoor or outdoor (keep the pace to a moderate level, not too intense)
Tai chi

You experience chronic stress
When you experience chronic stress, your cortisol levels are relatively high all the time, with a disturbed curve pattern.  A really common sign of a body that is chronically stressed is feeling exhausted in the morning and getting a surge of energy late at night. When you workout in this state, cortisol spikes, and then it has trouble coming back down. This means that exercise actually increases your stress levels when you are chronically stressed.

I know it can be hard to slow down on the activities that you really love to do, but if you take care to manage stress right now, you will get back to them soon. The longer you push your body to manage high levels of stress, the longer the recovery process. You want to avoid fatiguing your adrenal glands. Work on tackling the root causes of your stress as best as you can. Maybe you need to get some help with your overwhelming workload or housework and childcare. Maybe you need to leave a toxic work environment or go to counseling to work through mental health issues. When you focus on the root cause of your stress and take steps to reduce it, only then can you fully recover from burning yourself out. Move in ways that are soothing for now, and be sure to prioritize sleep.

Exercise ideas include:
Gentle yoga, like yin yoga
Walking (outside is especially helpful for chronic stress)
Swimming at a slow pace
Dancing to your favourite song
Tai chi

Summing it up
It’s important to listen to your body and take what people say you “should” do with a grain of salt. Everyone’s body is different, and they all have different needs when it comes to nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle. This is a big reason why it’s beneficial to work with a registered holistic nutrition practitioner. They don’t give you “one size fits all” advice. They do a full assessment to determine what it is that your body really needs to feel healthy and function optimally right now. Exercise is fantastic for stress management, but the intensity of the exercise and your body’s level of stress are important factors to take into account. Tune in and pay attention to body signals, and you will find the perfect amount of movement for you.

Contributed by Melanie Maxwell, R.H.N.