A micromanaging boss. Traffic jams. Too many bills and too little paycheck. More people today live with unhealthy levels of stress that can lead to all sorts of unpleasant consequences to both their physical and mental well-being. Multiple studies have confirmed the positive effects of regular exercise on anxiety levels, but not all workouts equally reduce tension levels.
Some people feel invigorated by a challenging workout while others stumble from their workout class, utterly drained. Why? It has to do with the stress hormone cortisol. Now, a new exercise phenomenon known as cortisol-conscious fitness unites mind and body in innovative ways to promote more substantial stress-busting benefits.
What Is Cortisol?
Cortisol is one of the two hormones responsible for the stress response in human beings. While adrenaline controls the immediate fight-or-flight response you feel when you see a bear, for instance, cortisol takes over during the long term.
As your levels of adrenaline drop, your hypothalamus signals your sympathetic nervous system to keep the gas pedal to the metal. It releases hormones to the adrenal glands that tell them to step up cortisol production. Your body remains revved up and on high alert.
Long, vigorous workouts can aggravate your body and prompt it to release cortisol to maintain the intensity level. Over the short term, stress hormones reduce appetite and digestive processes, which benefit you if you’re running a marathon. However, cortisol has a much longer arc than adrenaline. It remains in the body to help you recover from the traumatic event.
The problem arises when you already have chronically high levels of this hormone in your blood due to continual stressors like your job or finances. When you do, it’s like leaving a car running on idle perpetually. Your body signals you to eat more to recover, frustrating your weight loss efforts. Worse, you can develop issues like high blood pressure and Type 2 Diabetes. If you already have chronic stress, the elevated cortisol levels from intense or lengthy workouts can make matters worse, not better.
Marrying Cortisol-Consciousness with Fitness
Experts have long recommended exercise as a means of controlling stress. Should people now feel concerned about too much of a beneficial thing? You don’t have to hang up your tennis shoes. The right workout program will ease tension and serve as preventive care for weight management, blood pressure control and more.
However, you may want to dial back the intensity level or the duration of your workout to minimize cortisol production. For example, if you subscribe to many popular fitness apps, you’ll notice they feature multiple exercise sessions in 30-minute increments or less. Some, like DailyBurn, possess mini-workouts as short as five minutes. While many gym-goers still anticipate a 60-minute class, several venues have begun experimenting with more concise class formats, too.
Additionally, you’ll find classes that lower your intensity levels or that incorporate more of an interval training protocol. Many instructors will include breathwork as part of the cooldown to help bring your hormones back into balance. For example, practicing two-to-one breathing, where you exhale twice as long as you inhale, activates the parasympathetic nervous system. This reaction tells the body to halt the flow of cortisol.
Of course, you could always go with the original cortisol-conscious workout — yoga. Recently, researchers discovered that individuals with periodontal disease who adopted the practice had better oral health than those who did not. They also had lower serum cortisol levels than those who did not engage in this form of mind-body fitness. If managing your hormonal levels can impact your dental health, imagine what benefits you could see in other areas of the body.