Exercise as Stress Relief: Cortisol, Workout Volume, and Best Tips

Created by Holly Jackson

Last Updated: September 15, 2020

Today Holly offers some fascinating insights about the stress hormone cortisol and the relationship between cortisol and exercise. Once you understand the connections between exercise and stress, you’ll be able to understand how to use exercise as stress relief. Sure, a great HIIT session might make you feel great initially, but is it the best exercise to release stress? It’s time to find out about stress and exercising! – Elly xx

In my previous article, I introduced the concept of ‘biopsychosocial’ approaches to wellbeing. I explored healthy eating as an example of how a balanced lifestyle supports good mental health and wellbeing.

However, having a healthy, nutritious diet is not the be-all and end-all. Environment, psychological coping strategies, and (in particular) exercise all play key roles in reducing stress and achieving a good state of mind.

But to fully understand the relationship between stress and exercise, we first need to look at a hormone called cortisol.

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Cortisol: Stress Hormone, Or Rocket Fuel?

Cortisol gets a bad rap.

It’s one of the stress hormones and it’s blamed for poor sleep, weight gain, muscle deterioration, and lethargy. But it’s also cortisol which gets us up in the morning and regulates our weight, blood pressure, and energy levels. As well, it gives us an extra boost during short, intense bursts of activity.

One easy way to remember cortisol’s functions is to think of the ‘Caveman’ lifestyle. When we evolved, our main form of stress was from physical hazards or difficulty sourcing food. It definitely wasn’t from fretting over our emails, as often happens today.

If you have too much cortisol, your body assumes that you are under stress from the threat of physical danger, or starvation. It therefore starts to raise your blood pressure, heart rate, and blood glucose levels. This is important to provide the energy and the motivation to run away from a predator or give chase for food.

Exercise as Stress Relief-stressed woman at laptop

The problems with chronic cortisol elevation

Cortisol also triggers the body to store more energy as fat. This is because, in the prehistoric environment, we would be able to go for longer periods without food, especially during the winter months.

However, these adaptations are not a good fit for modern society. If your cortisol levels are raised because of work stress, for example, chances are you will not be doing enough regular physical activity to regulate the excess cortisol and adrenaline.

This is problematic because exposure to high levels of cortisol for extended periods can lead to several health issues. These include weight gain, high blood pressure, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, depression, difficulties with memory and concentration, digestive difficulties, heart disease, and diabetes.

Find out more about how stress negatively impacts your weight loss results, by watching the three minute video below.

Exercise as Stress Relief: The Connection Between Cortisol and Exercise

Cortisol is released when exercising, and it changes the way the body’s endocrine system functions to encourage you to ‘keep going’ when experiencing stress. During these times, cortisol raises your blood pressure – increasing your heart rate ready to pump oxygenated blood to your active muscles. At the same time, levels of blood glucose are increased to give your muscles more energy to fight or flee.

The longer you exercise, and the more pressure you put on your body, the more cortisol is produced. However, the body also reacts to excess cortisol; its regulatory system (i.e. homeostasis) sets in, balancing the levels of hormones in your body.

How does exercise reduce stress? What gentle to moderate exercise does, is ‘train’ the body to resume homeostasis after experiencing high levels of cortisol. Exercise reduces stress by teaching your body to relax faster after periods of stress. Your overall cortisol levels will also decrease.

Exercise as Stress Relief-woman lifting weights

How Much Exercise and How Intense to Reduce Stress?

Exercise is therefore essential for regulating the endocrine system, and as such, ensuring the smooth running of our mental and physical functions.

But to use exercise as stress relief, how much should we be doing, and to what intensity?

To counter the cortisol produced during exercise, it is important to exercise little and often, and to do it at the right time in your circadian rhythm. It is also preferable to exercise earlier in the day when your cortisol levels are naturally higher, so as not to disrupt your circadian rhythms. 

Ensuring that you have eaten carbohydrates and protein before your physical activity will also stop you from putting extra stress on your body.

Elly: Note that these tips have been shared to help those of you who need to reduce your overall stress levels. An individualized approach to a regular exercise program is always the best plan. If afternoon or evening exercise works better for you, then do it! Don’t skip your session just because a morning workout might have a better effect on your cortisol levels. Just make sure you read on to find out more about what types of exercise to focus on, and stress relief activities to support your overall wellbeing. You might also be interested to check out this article about exercise and sleep.

A decent cooldown to help mitigate the impact of exercise stress

Another technique to keep cortisol levels down and treat exercise as stress relief is investing in your cool-down period.

Exercise relieves stress when slow movement and deep breathing is carried out after physical activity. This combination helps to lower cortisol by triggering the parasympathetic nervous system, which restores balance to your cortisol and adrenaline levels after stress or a workout. 

Try the relaxing, full body stretch routine after a general cooldown to help activate the parasympathetic nervous system after your workout.

There is also significant evidence to suggest that listening to slow, calming music relieves high cortisol levels. It may even help your body to recover more quickly following exercise.

Rather than rushing your cool-down, take your time. Findings from the University of Nevada suggest that the optimal music tempo for relaxation is around 60 beats per minute. For best results, individuals should listen to it for at least 45 minutes, while in a relaxed position.

Some Simple Daily Activities to Relieve Stress

Stress relieving exercises: Gardening

Being a form of physical activity, gardening helps to reduce cortisol levels and can therefore be considered as a type of exercise to reduce stress. But that’s not all. Soil contains Mycobacterium vaccae, a type of microbe which increases human serotonin levels when inhaled or ingested. Harvesting fruit and veg also causes the brain to release dopamine, making you even happier!

Growing fresh, home-grown fruit and vegetables, and inhaling air while digging, can therefore be hugely beneficial to reducing stress levels.

Cleaning

Cleaning is a great form of exercise. On average, a 150 lb person will burn up to 200 calories while cleaning. With this, comes all the associated benefits of exercise – namely, endorphins are released, and you become fitter.

However, there is a complex relationship between cleaning and stress. On the one hand, both men and women show higher levels of cortisol after doing housework. But living in a cluttered home also leads to higher levels of cortisol.

So how best to combat this? Mindfulness practice could well be the answer.

Exercise as Stress Relief-cleaning car

Mindfulness

Researchers from Florida State University published a study on the effects of doing informal Mindfulness practice while washing the dishes. The group which practiced Mindfulness reported greater positive affect, decreases in negative affect, and increased awareness.

Part of the Mindfulness meditation focused on the following saying by Thich That Hanh, a Buddhist poet, spiritual leader, and one of the founders of the Mindfulness movement;

‘While washing the dishes, one should only be washing the dishes… The fact that I am standing here and washing is a wondrous reality. I’m being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence and conscious of my thoughts and actions.’

So next time you need to wash the dishes, don’t bring your baggage to the sink. Instead, try some Mindfulness practice and turn your chores into a free therapy session!

Elly: Get your FREE 4-day mindfulness discovery program from my friend Izzie.

Stress Relief Exercise: Walking 

A study by Hunter et al. (2019) found that just 20 minutes of walking in nature was enough to greatly reduce cortisol levels and that levels dropped further still when the walk was increased to 30 minutes.

Another study from 2015 has shown that regular walking helps to reduce rumination and may assist with preventing depression, on account of providing ‘positive distractions’ from stressful situations and thoughts.

So next time you’re feeling stressed, why not head outside and walk it out of your system?

Elly: Alternatively, you could opt for another type of gentle aerobic exercise (for example, swimming, dancing or cycling) to help clear your mind without placing too much additional stress on your body. Remember that exercise itself is a form of stress. Therefore, be careful not to add extra layers of stress with an intense session. You might think you are only mentally stressed, but mental stress may put you at risk for added physical issues.

Meditation 

Meditation is a well-known technique that reduces stress, depression, and anxiety. It has been practiced for thousands of years, and there are many aspects to meditation that may be helpful for stress reduction. Studies especially highlight the effects of mindfulness and yogic breathing.

Breathing exercises encourage the parasympathetic nervous system to kick in, which suppresses the release of stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. You may choose to use a basic breathing exercise, or combine your breathing exercises with a yoga flow.

Whether you’re looking for deep body relaxation, or a mental declutter, there will almost certainly be a meditation routine that works for you. It’s a great option if you are looking for stress relief exercises at home.

Elly: If you’re looking for the best exercise for stress, there are several options that focus on the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system. Among these are restorative or yin yoga, Tai Chi, and Qi Gong.

Also, exercise releases endorphins, and you’re likely to especially feel the effects of this if you’re doing something you enjoy. So as well as relaxing forms of exercise, consider what types of exercise you think are the most fun. Fun exercise can also be very effective:-)

Exercise as Stress Relief-woman meditating

Hobbies 

From reading to knitting to coloring to gaming, a range of leisure activities can help you to lower your stress levels. Too often, we don’t take time for ourselves, so learn something new or indulge in a hobby you haven’t done for a while. Your body will thank you for it!

Stress is one of those things which accumulates, so whenever you start to feel the tension build-up, take the time to do something you love, have a breather, and clear your mind. It can help you to recharge your batteries and ensure you’re keeping a positive, productive state of mental wellbeing!

Elly: For more tips to reduce stress, check out the short video below. You might also like this article about “me time” to reduce stress, and this article about calming techniques for stress reduction.

Disclaimer: This article contains affiliate links. This means that if you make a purchase after clicking on one of these recommended service provider links, like an insurance broker, or a travel agent, I may earn a commission – at no extra cost to you. [For my full disclosure, please see my DISCLAIMER page].

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