Stress and Cortisol: How this Hormone Plays a Big Role in your Training

I remember the first 2 years of starting Revive and how challenging it was to maintain my own workouts plus keep up with a new business (not to mention family).  Thinking back now, I did some things really well and others not so much.  Before we get into all of that, lets start with stress... the sum of all evils (sort of).

Well, stress as you know is a broad term - you have good stress, which is also called eustress that promotes a positive response one has to an experience like exercise... then you have distress, which is most of the stress we encounter day to day - screaming kids, lack of sleep, high anxiety situations, you name it.  Now the reason why this is important is because it all relates back to a hormone called CORTISOL.  Cortisol is produced in your body in response to stress whether good or bad.  Some amounts of cortisol in your body is good for you - such as when you workout or have a positive emotional experience.  Generally speaking, some levels of cortisol can improve metabolism, control blood pressure and decrease inflammation.  When cortisol goes too high or when we get in a state of chronic stress for too long, basically the opposite can happen (more on that later as well).   

So, back to me for a second...I was so driven to maintain my workout regime of 3 HIIT training sessions(classes) plus 2-3 strength focused workouts/week that as a coach myself, I didn't see the consequences right away.  Truly, I just let my ego get in the way.  When you coach others to put their health as priorty #1, I wanted to set the right example.... even with the weight of everything else, I didn't give up my training.  More so, if I had this problem, I couldn't imagine what it's like for the average person without a physiology background and all you see in fitness culture is do more and train harder.  You see, the fitness industry has really popularized HIIT training where almost every new gym calls themselves a HIIT studio and rarely are we informed of best practices when doing HIIT.  When you do high intensity exercise, your body releases cortisol and some amounts are good for you.  However, if you're doing this almost daily combined with a generally stressful lifestyle, your cortisol levels will stay elevated.  

So what happened?  For one, I was chronically fatigued, my injuries weren't going away, and overall I just wasn't making progress with my fitness.  All of this took a toll on my mental health.  Scientifically, it's noted that short term symptoms are increased resting heart rate, migraines and a decrease in libido.  Long term symptoms can be even worse including high blood pressure, diabetes and even weight gain. There's nothing wrong with trying to train the way I did, but when you combine that with long hours at work and a home life of 2 young kids - the lack of sleep, poor nutrition at times, and general stress of trying to keep up took it's toll and finally I knew I needed to make some changes... this is the perfect example of cortisol being elevated for too long in my body and I could feel it. 

If you have high cortisol levels, does it mean you should stop training altogether?  No.  It's important to adjust how much high intensity training you're doing, so I decreased my training intensity and amount to reduce cortisol.  For a month I took my HIIT training or high intensity exercise to 1x/week, continued my strength training but with lighter weights and introduced some mindfulness practices like meditation.  Oh, and did I mention I also focused on getting more than 7 hours of sleep every night... yea that helped A LOT.. and for a couple times a year I make sure I go back to this routine regardless of where I'm at so that my body has a chance to recover and regenerate.  

If you're the high achiever who can't let go of your workout routine or simply someone trying to balance life with fitness, I encourage you to think deeper about your health than simply how many times a week you're going to make it to the gym.  

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