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The Exercise and Cortisol Connection: Sweating Stress Away

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Stress is an important evolutionary function. Without it, you wouldn鈥檛 be able to properly respond to certain stimuli, like a biker that鈥檚 about to run into you, or the fire alarm going off.聽

Other times, however, stress lingers in the body, sometimes for no obvious reasons. This is often due to imbalances of cortisol, an important hormone in the stress response. Cortisol is necessary for many different bodily processes, but if there is too much of the stress hormone circulating in the body, it can lead to chronic stress and other health issues.

Luckily, there are a few solutions to cortisol imbalances. The big one: exercise.聽

Learn more about how physical activity and exercise is linked to managing excess cortisol levels in the body, and how best to incorporate it into your daily routine with this helpful guide.聽

Stress hormones unveiled

Meet cortisol: a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands, which are little sacs that sit above both of your kidneys. While yes, cortisol is known for regulating your body鈥檚 stress response, this stress hormone controls many other important elements in your body, such as:

  • Metabolism
  • Blood pressure
  • Blood sugar
  • Inflammation
  • Circadian rhythm

Cortisol is released after the adrenal glands are given a signal from the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, both located in the brain. This system is controlled by a process known as homeostasis.

Homeostasis works almost like a thermostat.聽

With a thermostat, when the temperature drops below a set degree, the heat clicks on, and when the room is back to the right temperature, the heat clicks off. Similarly, in the body, when cortisol levels drop below the necessary amount, more is released until the body reaches a balance (homeostasis) and can stop producing it.聽

Cortisol: acute stress vs. chronic stress

Cortisol is also released in reaction to stressors.聽

Here鈥檚 an example: You鈥檙e on a hike, and suddenly, a bear wanders out onto the path in front of you. Your brain recognizes the bear as a potential threat, so it alerts the adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol. You stop, and your heart begins to race. Then, the bear continues on its way. After a few moments, you begin to relax, and keep moving.聽

This situation is known as acute stress. When the stressor has left, your stress response will shut off. But these types of stressors are few and far in between. So why do so many people struggle with high cortisol?

Many people, especially nowadays, experience lingering or chronic stress, meaning the stress response stays turned on even in the absence of a specific stressor.

Chronic stressors may include unhealthy work environments or caring for sick family members. Those suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) also deal with prolonged stress and elevated cortisol levels.

Some symptoms you may experience due to elevated cortisol levels include:

  • Weight gain
  • High blood sugar and hypertension
  • Muscle and bone weakness

Chronic stress also causes mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.

It鈥檚 clear that while cortisol is necessary to certain bodily functions, it's not great for helping the body deal with chronic stress.

Mind-body connection: cortisol and stress reduction

Stress is both a physical and mental reaction to stimuli. Often, these reactions are so intertwined that it can be hard to tell the difference.聽

Even though cortisol is a physical chemical in your body, it can have significant effects on your mind, and your mental health. Lowering your heightened cortisol levels is necessary for weight loss, low blood pressure, and regular sleep, but it鈥檚 also essential to relieving the mental symptoms of stress like anxiety and depression.聽

Sometimes, your control over your cortisol levels is limited. But there are many strategies to lower cortisol levels and reduce stress that you can begin implementing into your life today.聽

The cortisol-exercise connection

A proven way to reduce stress is through regular exercise.聽

Exercise鈥檚 effects are both physical and mental. It can increase blood flow and metabolism, while quieting anxious thoughts and boosting your overall mood.聽

But, specifically, how does exercise affect your body鈥檚 cortisol levels?聽

Individual variations: cortisol responses to exercise

Exercise is a physical stressor on your body, meaning your body actually releases stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol while you鈥檙e being active.

Remember that these hormones, when released in appropriate amounts, allow you to perform better in acute stress situations like exercise. You get a surge of energy, and your heart is able to beat faster, so you can work harder.

It鈥檚 been shown that the rise in cortisol levels due to exercise is able to counterbalance the cortisol response to psychological stressors that create chronic stress. Acute, physical stressors like exercise help your body deal more effectively with irregular, psychological stressors like work challenges and relationship conflict.聽

Optimizing workouts for cortisol balance

When you think of exercise, what鈥檚 the first thing that comes to mind?聽

Is it walking on the treadmill, or lifting weights, or swimming laps? Or is it something else entirely? This just shows you that there are countless ways to exercise鈥攁nd some are more effective than others at relieving stress.聽

It鈥檚 true that cortisol and exercise have a positive relationship, but it's important to take a closer look at the specific types of exercise that work best to lower cortisol levels and for stress reduction, and when you should be performing them.聽

Types of exercise and cortisol response

Exercise intensity is linked to your body鈥檚 cortisol output: the more rigorous the workout, the more cortisol your body produces.

A workout鈥檚 intensity can be determined by the specific activity and workout duration: running is usually more intense than walking, but a long walk can often be comparable to a short run.聽

Studies have found that the amount of cortisol produced during exercise has an inverse effect on the cortisol produced for stressors that come later. Generally, it was found that more intense exercise over a short period of time is most effective in reducing cortisol levels from other stressors.

That doesn鈥檛 mean you need to be doing two hour HIIT workouts every day to reduce your cortisol鈥攖hat鈥檚 unsustainable. Instead, focus on creating a routine. A 30-minute power walk several times a week will have all the benefits you need to notice a difference.聽

Exercise timing: impact on cortisol fluctuations

Cortisol levels, in addition to spiking from stressors, fluctuate naturally throughout the day. Your highest levels occur in the hour after waking, and gradually decrease until you go to sleep.

Cortisol makes you more alert, which is why it's usually best to exercise in the morning, and avoid exercising three to six hours before bed. Morning exercise not only boosts wakefulness during the day, it can increase the amount of melatonin in your body at night for improved sleep.

That being said, there are many factors to consider, including your personal schedules. If the only time you have to exercise is after work, that鈥檚 okay. Moving your body in some way whenever you have the opportunity is what鈥檚 most important for stress relief.聽

Cortisol, endorphins, and the exercise high

Now that you understand the link between cortisol level and exercise, it's time to focus on the important post-exercise hormones: endorphins.

Endorphins create that feel-good sensation during and after a workout, also known as an 鈥渆xercise high.鈥 They are produced in the brain whenever you experience stress, like when you鈥檙e exercising, in order to protect the body from feeling pain.

Endorphins are known to help with:

  • Relieving symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression
  • Boosting self-esteem and confidence
  • Weight loss and appetite regulation

So not only does exercise help reduce stress hormones like cortisol, it increases stress-relieving hormones for an enhanced positive effect.

Strategies for post-exercise cortisol regulation

After your workout is done, what can you do to keep the good vibes flowing?聽

There are many other effective stress relieving strategies you can combine with exercise to maximize its cortisol balancing benefits:

  • Relaxation techniques 鈥 Deep breathing exercises, yoga, and mindful meditation are all great for keying in to changes in the body, slowing your racing thoughts and finding reprieve from stress and anxiety.
  • Eating a healthy diet 鈥 While eating right is good for you in general, it can actually help lower stress. Since cortisol keeps your body awake, you may find that reducing caffeine intake or cutting it out entirely can help you feel less anxious or stressed.
  • Regular, restful sleep 鈥 Imbalanced cortisol levels can have a negative effect on your sleep/wake cycle. Getting adequate sleep by practicing good sleep hygiene will reduce stress over time.聽
  • Fostering positive relationships 鈥 Strained relationships with friends, family, or coworkers can add a lot of stress to your life. By actively working to resolve interpersonal conflict, you can relieve stress and prevent it from coming back.聽

If you鈥檙e continuing to struggle with elevated stress despite your best efforts to alleviate it, it may be helpful to seek professional help from a doctor or therapist.聽

Relieve stress in more ways than one with Apollo Neuro

Stress and high cortisol levels are often linked to poor sleep due to chronic issues such as insomnia and sleep apnea.

The creators of the Apollo wearable understand the interconnectedness of stress and poor sleep, which is why they developed a wearable that works to alleviate both. The Apollo wearable can help you relax during the day and find restful sleep at night, combatting stress 24/7. With Apollo, relief is possible.聽

Learn more about Apollo wearables and how you can customize your Apollo Vibes to target stress and promote good sleep. Read about it in the 鈥How to use鈥 section of our website or on our blog.聽

Sources:聽

Cleveland Clinic. Cortisol. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/22187-cortisol

Mayo Clinic. Chronic stress puts your health at risk. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037

ScienceDirect. The effects of exercise intensity on the cortisol response to a subsequent acute psychosocial stressor. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306453021002109

ScienceDirect. The effects of physical activity on cortisol and sleep: A systematic review and meta-analysis. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306453022001846

American Council on Exercise. When Is the Best Time of Day to Exercise? https://www.acefitness.org/resources/pros/expert-articles/6929/when-is-the-best-time-of-day-to-exercise/

Cleveland Clinic. Endorphins. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/body/23040-endorphins