When Workouts Don’t Work: Why Less Is Sometimes More
by Marlaina Donato
Exercise is a proven component in losing weight and preventing cardiovascular disease and diabetes, but not all exercise regimens yield the same results for everyone, especially when daily stress is a factor. While workouts are often intended to reduce the body’s physiological response to mental and emotional stress, exercise itself can serve as a physical stressor that exacerbates the problem. This delicate balance revolves around the stress hormone cortisol.
While cortisol is needed to kickstart metabolism and burn fat, too much of it can increase the body’s fat stores. Stephanie Mansour, host of Step It Up With Steph, a weekly TV fitness program in Chicago, sees this correlation in her private practice for women. “Aggressive workouts definitely perpetuate stress, and aren’t always necessary for weight loss. If one of my clients is stressed-out, sleep-deprived, overworked and doing intense workouts but not seeing weight-loss results, that’s a signal that cortisol is potentially too high and needs to be addressed.”
Fat-burning, high-intensity interval training (HIIT)—bursts of exercise with minimal periods of rest in between—raises levels of cortisol. These tend to decrease after a workout, but can remain on overdrive if HIIT is not balanced with low-intensity movement. Add jam-packed schedules to the mix, and the side effects of chronically elevated cortisol result not only in longer recovery time, but insomnia, fatigue, low immunity and failure to lose weight, especially around the midsection—a phenomenon that has earned cortisol the nickname “the belly fat hormone”.
Balancing HIIT with yoga, Pilates, elliptical training, swimming or walking can help to reset the nervous system and bring the rest of the body back up to speed.
Mansour works with a naturopath that analyzes her clients’ cortisol and other hormone levels. “One of the first things we focus on is helping the body move into the parasympathetic nervous system and out of the fight-or-flight stress response. One way we do this is by shifting into more relaxed workouts—gentle yoga, beginners’ Pilates class, light cardio or light strength training.”
Fitness expert Beth Shaw chose a zealous approach in her own exercise regimen until high cortisol levels unraveled her health. The founder of YogaFit, a yoga teacher training program headquartered in Toronto, she emphasizes moderation. “The key is to not overtrain and to do just enough to adequately stimulate the system.” She recommends 30-to 45-minute cardio sessions and no longer than 45 minutes for weights. “Endorphin release from these two types of exercises should offset any release in cortisol.”
When we exercise may be as important to achieving weight loss and enhancing overall energy as the type of workout we choose, a factor based on circadian rhythm—the body’s biological clock. There are some schools of thought that cortisol is higher in the morning, and therefore this is the best time to exercise, says Mansour, while others believe we should target the mid-afternoon slump. “I advise my clients to pick a time that simply feels good to them.”
Mixing It Up
Hopping on a bike, going for a brisk walk or catching the waves on a surfboard can provide a great low-intensity, steady-state (LISS) cardiovascular workout, which aims for a low level of exertion for a long, continuous period. Repetitive motion for 30 to 45 minutes not only helps to balance cortisol levels, but according to a 2014 Australian study published in the Journal of Obesity, it evens out fat distribution in overweight individuals. LISS also nudges the body to use fat as fuel, rather than taking valuable glycogen from the muscles.
Yoga and Pilates classes, though distinctly different, offer valuable benefits. “If cortisol backlash is an issue, you definitely want to work with someone who knows the anatomy and physiology of breathing,” says Tori Brown, owner of The Pilates Room & Antigravity Studio, in Ithaca, New York. “By learning proper breathing techniques, practitioners are able to downregulate the nervous system into a more parasympathetic state, which leads to better focus, lower heart rate, better digestion, more optimal cortisol levels and improved sleep patterns. All of this leads to more focused workouts that build muscle while creating less stress on the nervous system.”
Mansour suggests simple walking for stress-busting alternative cardio. “Brisk walking three times a week for 20 to 30 minutes is great to help reduce stress.”
Marlaina Donato is an author and composer.
More Low-Stress Workout Tips
Beth Shaw: I recommend high-intensity training first thing in the morning on an empty stomach three times a week, and adopting a yoga practice a few days a week that includes restorative yoga in the evenings to reduce cortisol.
Stephanie Mansour: Try high-intensity workouts for a few weeks. Take inventory of how you feel each day. Look at your progress over a few weeks to find a healthy balance. If it’s not working, change it up.
Tori Brown: If Pilates is your go-to exercise for strength training, opt for private training three times a week (minimum). If you are combining Pilates with other modes of exercise and really just need the cortisol downplay and core work, choose mat classes two times a week. Pilates private instruction will completely change the way you do all other forms of exercise. It is very different than all other exercise and very complementary.