The Truth About Cardio and Stress Relief
You think you do cardio for stress relief, but your body registers it as stress. I thought there was no way I could live happily without running 4-5 days a week. I’d surely go insane, right?!
For years I believed the mantra that running was what kept me sane, “sweat out the crazy!”, as many running shirts claim. But, once I lost my period, I realized this cardio obsession was doing more harm than good.
Intense exercise – running and bootcamp style workouts especially – raises the amount of cortisol in your blood, suppressing your growth hormones and sex hormones.
Yes, that means it is going to be harder to build muscle (you are lifting weights, right?!) and your period can be thrown out of whack (not to mention your libido can tank, womp womp).
Here are some common red flags that your cardio is adding more stress than it takes away:
👉 Exercising for an hour or more
Prolonged workouts, especially at higher intensity, have been shown to cause chronically raised cortisol when studied in endurance athletes. When you do not have adequate rest between sessions, your body does not have the chance to recovery and lower cortisol levels.
👉 Working out fasted, not properly refueling
Working out on an empty stomach – and/or not replenishing post-workout – has been shown to produce higher levels of cortisol in the blood. While the occasional fasted workout won’t cause havoc, routinely exercising on an empty stomach will chronically raise cortisol, that stunts fat burning and promotes fat storage.
👉 Primarily training at high intensity
Exercising at a higher intensity, >60-80% of your full effort, shows an increase in cortisol, where working out at <40% of your max effort can actually lower circulating cortisol. This means lower intensity workouts actually lower stress as opposed to heart-pumping sweaty cardio that you think is relieving stress.
Guidelines to strike a healthy balance with exercise and stress
🙌 Keep workouts under an hour (30min will do!)
Hour classes are the norm, and half hour classes are labeled “Express”, making us think workouts should last 60 minutes. Not true! You can absolutely see physical change and get an endorphin boost from 30 minute workouts. You also won’t risk raising cortisol by not overtaxing your system and allowing enough rest and recovery.
🙌 Fuel right with at least 2,200+ calories
I hate putting a number on calorie counts, but undereating is rampant in female exercisers. We are led to believe we need waaaaaay less calories than we do. I know I thought 1,800-2,000 was enough even when training for marathons!
While I don’t count anymore (freeeeeeeedom!) I can tell you that eating 2,200-2,500 is an appropriate range, even if you aren’t working out intensely. You are a grown woman, eat like it! Be sure to fuel post-workout with carbs and protein to maintain muscle growth and repairs.
🙌 Sparingly train at high intensity
Look, even when I read that you can train moderately most of the time, I was still afraid to dial it down. Now that I’ve tried it out for myself, I can tell you it’s true. You do not need that much high intensity in your workout routine! I love a sweaty tough workout, and that’s fine to do, but keep it at 20-40 minutes a couple times a week, with rest or yoga days in between.
Sleep is just as important as your time training, it’s when your body repairs the damage done through exercise. Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep – SLEEP, not lying in bed on your phone! – to fully restore your body. Chronic elevated cortisol may make it harder to sleep deeply, so you might notice better quality sleep once you’re working out at a more reasonable volume.
Cutting back on exercise isn’t always as easy as it sounds. I get it, because I was there, too! I couldn’t imagine not running 30 miles a week, plus hour long bootcamp classes, but now on the other side I can’t imagine going back! I still love working out, but it doesn’t control my schedule, or my life, anymore.
If your workouts are taking over, but you don’t know how to scale back, let’s talk. I offer free 30-minute calls to set you up with more knowledge and a goal to start with.