Cortisol is a naturally occurring steroid hormone that follows a cyclical release pattern throughout our day-to-day lives. It has a vital physiological role, but too much or too little for too long can have serious negative effects on the body. Recent developments in exercise science have highlighted how exercise impacts upon cortisol activity. So what do we need to know?
What does cortisol do?
‘Stress’… the word itself is taxing enough! However, stress in moderation is actually good for you. It can help you accomplish tasks more efficiently, boost memory, and act as a physiological warning system that activates your fight-or-flight response. This essential function helped to keep our ancestors alive! Cortisol is most effective in the short-term for physical threats—say chasing after mammoths, or fending off that pesky sabre-toothed tiger.
In the body, stress is controlled by a number of hormones, of which cortisol is arguably the most important. It acts to shut down functions that are not immediately critical and are therefore a temporary waste of energy. As such, the body is better equipped to fight imminent physical threats by providing the energy necessary.
A primary function of cortisol is to raise the glucose levels in our plasma, providing additional energy to combat injury, illness, and infection. Furthermore, it has powerful anti-inflammatory effects that reduce pain and irritation.
Modern working life seems to induce a state of regular, low-level, psychological stress. This could not be more different from the evolutionary reason for cortisol. Cortisol also raises blood pressure, increasing the burden on your cardiovascular system, and the consistently elevated heightened glucose levels are a risk factor for diabetes.
The reduced protein synthesis, tissue breakdown, and again heightened glucose levels caused by the hormone can induce muscle atrophy—in other words, long days at the desk can actually cause your muscles to get smaller! Who knew?
Not to mention the toll it takes on our mental health, manifesting as increased anxiety, depression or irritability. In short, it is essential to find ways to control our cortisol levels, and one of the most effective ways is… exercise!
Exercise, stress, and the impact on cortisol levels
Exercise induces a stress reaction in the body, particularly if you do not workout regularly and are treading in unfamiliar territory! However, regular exercise leads to adaptation in which your body becomes better equipped to deal with it. As a result, less cortisol is released during exercise but better still in psychologically stressful scenarios—huge benefits for exercise, and by extension life in general!
That said, if you want to lower cortisol levels it is not as straightforward as simply exercising more. Low intensity exercise for 60 minutes will run the body’s glycogen stores dry, and stimulate the release of more cortisol. Hence, cortisol levels are generally higher in endurance athletes.
Even high intensity, short duration exercise can drive up cortisol levels if the rest periods are too short. This is only exacerbated by fasting or exercising in the early morning when the stress hormone is already naturally elevated.
Instead, you have to be smart about the time and intensity of it. So consider the following methods for maintaining healthy cortisol levels in your day-to-day life:
- Fuel your body appropriately. Proteins and carbohydrates after exercise lower the cortisol response.
- Exercise later in the day. If you can that is. Your natural cortisol levels are lower later in the day, and do not rise as much in response to exercise.
- Rest is crucial. Take regular breaks in a session, and ensure that you have rest days to aid physical recovery. We designed Quell with this in mind, delivering bursts of activity interspersed with calmer periods—we know there’s more to lowering stress than simply punching monsters in the face (though it sure helps!).
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