If you want to be healthy and fit, nutrition is not enough. Whether you are working out 6 days a week or go to yoga class once or twice, some form of exercise is necessary to maintain bodyweight and increase overall fitness.
However, most of the time, people fail to take time to get in some exercise, mostly because they are stressed. As a matter of fact, if you are on-the-go constantly and sleep poorly because you just can’t seem to wind down after a long work day, exercise might be your best sleeping aid.
Today, I would like to elaborate how exercise decreases Cortisol levels and which forms of exercise are best, as well as some key points we need to keep in mind to use exercise to benefit our health.
Make sure to check out the other parts of this series:
Part 1: Meet your Stress Hormones
Part 2: How Cortisol affects your body
Part 3: Does stress inhibit weight loss?
Part 4: Why stress makes you sick
Part 5: Food for stress relief
Why you need to sweat it out
As I explained in the first part of this series, Cortisol messes with our electrolytes, sodium levels and amount of water in our body. People with high levels of cortisol often experience water retention, due to increased sodium levels.
In contrast to that, potassium and magnesium levels often decrease. This contributes to poor sleep, the development of insulin resistance and has many health risks for our heart and brain as well. For instance, low potassium levels can easily cause swelling of our brain, damaging our cells.
Thus, it is important to lower sodium levels and the best way to do this is by drinking water and exercising.
Especially if you have a chronic disease and have to take Cortisol as part of your therapy, you need to sweat every single day. Even if it is just 15 minutes of cycling or running, you need to increase your body temperature and heart rate.
Reverses damage caused to the brain
During exercise, our heart rate increases due to the release of a hormone, called norepinephrine, or noradrenaline. This hormone can actually improve cognitive function, elevate your mood and improve learning. As cortisol can cause damage our hippocampus, the part of our brain responsible for memory and learning new skills, exercise can help prevent loss of memory and basically makes you smarter!
It makes you happy
The rush of endorphins released during exercise is often referred to as the “runner’s high”. Along with noradrenaline, levels of endorphins in our brain increase and improve our mood. They can also help balance neurotransmitters and hormones regulated by our brain, such as hunger hormones. If you are craving food constantly, exercise and you won’t feel hungry anymore.
Best kinds of exercise to decrease stress
Now that we know the benefits of exercise, let us take a look at the different options of exercise to decrease cortisol levels.
Aerobic and anaerobic exercise
Researchers have proven that low intensity aerobic exercise, such as walking or swimming, is very efficient at reducing cortisol levels. In fact, many people experience the repetitive fashion of aerobic exercise as “muscular meditation”. Even 20 minutes of walking a day can significantly reduce cortisol levels, improve your sleep, balance your hormones and improve your mood as well.
In addition to that, higher intensity exercise can be used to reduce cortisol levels as well. The key to use HIT (High Intensity Training) smart is to use the proper duration and frequency. It is not recommended to do HIT for longer than 30 minutes, as after that threshold, cortisol and adrenalin levels have been shown to increase again. In addition to that, you should not exceed 3 to maximum 4 sessions per week.
The same principle can be applied to resistance training as well. Strength training and HIT are both anaerobic in nature. Traditional strength training with longer resting periods between sets is considered as low-moderate intense exercise and is very efficient at decreasing cortisol levels.
If you would like to burn a high amount of body fat and don’t have much time for long workouts, you can do shorter but more intense workouts, where you do the exercises in circuits. However, in this case, it is not recommended to train for longer than 50 minutes. As your body reaches the point of fatigue, cortisol levels increase and cause more stress.
In conclusion, all kinds of exercise can be used to reduce cortisol levels. Health care professionals recommend to use a variety of exercise forms for the best results.
For instance, you can do 3 strength training workouts per week, along with 1-2 HIT sessions. On the other days, you can walk or ride your bike for a longer duration workout and let your body and mind relax. Make sure to take at least one day per week completely off though.
Lastly, sports medicine physicians also recommend to cycle your training and apply deloading weeks every 4-12 weeks (depends on your body’s reactions and fitness levels) to improve physical performance and prevent injuries.
Physical exercise has been proven to be very efficient at decreasing cortisol levels. Apart form that, we can also use our mind to relax our body and balance our hormones.
If you have been to yoga or pilates classes or do strength training, you already know that proper breathing is key. In stressful situations, we often hold our breath without even realizing it. This reduces blood flow, especially to our brain, and can cause increase of cortisol levels.
Thus, practising deep, controlled breaths, preferably in beautiful nature, has been shown to reduce cortisol levels significantly. Make it a habit to stop yourself in a stressful situation and first breathe in and out slowly, with your eyes closed, 10 times. It might not seem like a lot to you, but it will not only decrease your cortisol levels but also help you manage the situation and increase mental clarity.
-> Related: Yoga for Health
Progressive muscular relaxation
Whenever we are stressed, our muscles get tight and tensed. Toxic end-products and lactic acid accumulate. This often results in prolonged periods of muscle soreness, muscle aching and make you feel tired.
This technique focuses on the biggest muscle groups. Basically, you are going to contract your muscles as hard as you can for 20 seconds and then let them completely relax. You will repeat this many times, until you feel the tightness in your muscles decrease.
Try this very effective technique of relaxing your muscles, published on Harvard education, to decrease cortisol levels instantly:
Wrinkle your forehead and arch your eyebrows. Hold; then relax.
Close your eyes tightly. Hold; then relax.
Wrinkle your nose and flare your nostrils. Hold; then relax.
Push your tongue firmly against the roof of your mouth. Hold; then relax.
Grimace. Hold; then relax.
Clench your jaws tightly. Hold; then relax.
Tense your neck by pulling your chin down to your chest. Hold; then relax.
Arch your back. Hold; then relax.
Breathe in as deeply as you can. Hold; then relax.
Tense your stomach muscles. Hold; then relax.
Buttocks and thighs
Tense your buttocks and thigh muscles. Hold; then relax.
Tense your biceps. Hold; then relax.
Forearms and hands
Tense your arms and clench your fists. Hold; then relax.
Press your feet down. Hold; then relax.
Ankles and feet
Pull your toes up. Hold; then relax.
The entire routine should take 12 to 15 minutes. Practice it twice daily, expecting to master the technique and experience some relief of stress in about two weeks.
I hope you found these tips useful and will implement some of them!
While I make sure to get in a variety of physical exercise forms and take needed deload weeks, I definitely lack in the mental exercise department. A goal of mine is to practise breathing more often and try out progressive muscular relaxation.
What about you? Have you tried these forms of exercising? What are your experiences?