High Intensity Exercise & Cortisol

Social media readily delivers sooo much information on, well, pretty much anything and everything! This is great in many different ways. However, the format doesn’t truly allow for long-form, nuanced information. 

I know we all have packed lives with limited time to devote to more conversation and context, but when it comes to health, things aren’t super clear-cut, so the little things do matter. There are so many health, wellness, and fitness accounts online. It can be difficult to discern who to trust and follow, especially since scientific research can certainly be taken out of context and cherry picked. The best practice is to take things with a grain of salt. Anyone who is super rigid in their approach is usually a no-no for me.

There are a lot of people discouraging the public from partaking in high-intensity exercise. This is based on a natural physiological response that’s been interpreted erroneously. There are definitely times where taking exercise down a notch or keeping things to a bare-minimum, especially if your healthcare team has advised you to do so, is warranted.

For most of us, though, there are great benefits to be reaped from high-intensity exercise.

What are the current exercise guidelines?

The guidelines for adults in Canada are:

  • 150 minutes per week minimum of moderate-vigorous levels of cardio activity.
    • Moderate intensity = some sweat and some heart rate increase.
    • Vigorous or high intensity = out of breath with your heart rate rising significantly. This can look like ~22 minutes per day or 30 minutes five days per week.
  • Two days minimum of strength/muscle-building exercise targeting big muscle groups.
  • Each session should be at least 10 minutes long.
  • Work on different aspects like cardio, strength, flexibility, and balance. There are numerous overlapping benefits, but cardio is better for lung capacity and blood vessel elasticity, while strength/resistance training is better for muscle growth and preservation.
  • My addition: increase non-exercise activity (NEAT) like walking, moving around the house, taking breaks from sitting down, doing things with family and friends, etc.

brown-skinned woman with black shoulder-length hair in a black and white sweater with numerous acupuncture needles in the whole face

Okay, but what about high intensity exercise and cortisol?

Cortisol, your stress hormone, gets a bad rap. However, you need cortisol for, well, life!

It’s what gets you going in the morning, it’s an important part of your immune function, it’s crucial for your emotional regulation, and it’s an important part of you adapting to exercise.

The very natural physiological adaptation response to exercise  as a result of stress/stimulus is what helps us get stronger/faster/etc. and improves our cardiometabolic health (think of your lungs, blood vessels, heart, lymphatic system, liver, blood sugar regulation, etc.)

The biggest problems we face in the female hormone health-exercise-cortisol triad (a name I’m making up) are:

  • overdoing high-intensity exercise (which requires a LOT of resources)
  • not building in adequate rest and recovery days (which will definitely cause a wacky stress response)
  • underfuelling/undereating for your needs and nutritional deficiencies (which will definitely make you feel crummy)
  • high stress levels (hello, life in the 2020s!) and inadequate (relative) stress management (which saps us of so much!)
  • all of the above all at once (aka the perfect storm of hormone dysregulation)

I see it all the time in my practice: when we diversify exercise, build in rest days, work on stress (as much as we can, I suppose), and add more fuel, people feel better.

So, what do I do?

Yes, hormones are complex and there’s a lot of interplay, but the basics pretty much always apply.

So, work on eating enough to feel well and to fuel your workouts, build in adequate rest and recovery days, diversify your exercise type/volume/frequency so that it’s not just high intensity, and work on sleep and stress.  These are the factors will make all the difference.

Maybe you need some help healing your relationship with food and your body too. This is something I see over and over again. I’m not going to say that any of this is easy. Health and life are hard work. Exercising is hard, especially if you’re just getting started or restarted. 

BUT it is the one thing you can do for yourself. It has benefits for:

  • bone health (reduces the risk of osteoporosis)
  • heart health (reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease including diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol)
  • cognition and brain health (reduces the risk of/slows down cognitive decline)
  • body composition (helps reduce the deposition of fat in and around your organs)
  • mood and mental health
  • sleep
  • better quality of life (improved mobility so you can do the things you want to do)
  • much more

So, get moving, dear reader. Something is better than nothing at all. 2 minutes is better than zero… one step at a time.

The way to get better at exercising and exercising regularly is to actually exercise. You can do hard things… you have to prioritize them, though (remember: you can’t prioritize ALL the things!).