There’s no one form of exercise to fit everyone. Some of us enjoy the slow meditative burn of yoga, pilates, weight lifting or a long walk. Others prefer heart pounding, sweat inducing routines such as cross fit, running, or cycling. While some of us can take our pick depending on our mood, many people need to take into account bodily injuries or even medical conditions. Yet, no matter what types of physical activity fit your lifestyle, there is one factor that we should all take into consideration: cortisol. This essential hormone plays a key role in your body and may even determine the effectiveness of your daily workout. This is why a new trend is growing in popularity called cortisol conscious exercise.

Here’s the science and the scoop!

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What is Cortisol?

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You’re probably familiar with cortisol as the stress hormone due to the fact that cortisol is a chemical messenger (or hormone) that controls your flight or fight response.

Yet, cortisol is much more than that.

Cortisol is a steroid hormone, which are hormones that are part of the steroid chemical compound group. The steroid hormones are derived from cholesterol and are produced in the adrenal cortex, testes, and ovaries. Along with aiding the flight or fight response, cortisol can “help control blood sugar levels, regulate metabolism, help reduce inflammation, and assist with memory formulation.” On top of that, cortisol also regulates salt and water balance, blood pressure, and is an essential support hormone for a developing fetus.

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Cortisol and Exercise

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Cortisol is an integral part of our overall health. I mean, this little messenger is everywhere in our bodies helping with all sorts of essential functions. So, how are cortisol and exercise interrelated? Simply put, exercise affects the production of cortisol. Of course, as with most things related to the human body, it’s not that simple.

How Exercise Affects Cortisol Production

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There’s no single mathematical equation that will help determine how much cortisol is produced from your morning run. It all depends on the type, strenuousness, and regularity of exercise, all three of which will determine the amount of cortisol and how it’s used. On top of that, other varying factors such as time of day, psychological stress, and level of exercise training, also affect cortisol levels.

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For instance, cortisol increases are seen in acute high-intensity resistance exercise, but particularly when “rest periods are short and total volume is high” such as “a sprint or a high-intensity conditioning or bodybuilding-style workout.” On the other hand, aerobic exercise has been shown to reduce “levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol.” While exercise is a form of stress, which will naturally produce cortisol, the “more your fitness improves the better the body becomes at dealing with physical stress.”

What does all of this mean?

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While you can’t predict the exact numbers, you can predict the types of exercise and the times of day that will produce more or less cortisol. On top of that, the more your body is exposed to and gets used to exercise the “less cortisol will be released during exercise.”

So, even if you could change your exercise routine to better regulate cortisol production, why would you want to? Recently, scientists have begun to look into the overall effects of cortisol. Can you have too much cortisol? Can you have too little? Is long term exposure to certain levels damaging?

To begin with, let’s take a look at the negative effects of too much cortisol.

Negative Effects of Cortisol

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While cortisol is essential for our bodies to function properly, there are downsides when the body produces chronically high levels.

Negative effects include “tissue breakdown, reduced protein synthesis and conversion of protein to glucose,” which may lead to a decrease in musculature and increase in abdominal fat. Basically, if you’re producing too much cortisol, you could lose muscle strength and gain weight in the midsection.

Unfortunately, there are even more serious side effects of chronically high cortisol levels. Overproduction of cortisol has also been linked to suppressed “growth hormone and sex hormones, which can reduce libido and fertility,” as well as an increased risk of developing diabetes and osteoporosis.

With that said, there are easy ways to make sure you’re not overworking your cortisol hormone!

Types of Exercise and Cortisol Levels

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A study in 2011 performed at the Technical University of Dresden in Germany, discovered that “long-term cortisol exposure was significantly high in endurance athletes.” This outcome highlighted the theory that long-term exercise (generally over 60 minutes) stimulated the release of higher levels of cortisol. On the other hand, shorter and more intense workouts, “such as sprints, HITT, or weight training cause less of an increase in plasma cortisol concentrations.”

That sounds simple enough, right? Hold up, we’re not quite to the perfect equation yet.

While shorter and higher intensity workouts may show a decrease in cortisol production, you’re going to want to watch out for those rest periods and the level of intensity of the shorter workout. Cortisol “levels tend to surge if rest periods are short and work levels are high.” Plus, you have to consider when you exercise. If you start out first thing in the morning, “cortisol levels are naturally higher and the response to exercise can be more.”

So, where does this leave us?

Luckily, a new trend becoming popular in 2019 is seeking out a great way to make sure we’re keeping cortisol in mind. This trend is referred to as cortisol conscious exercise.

Cortisol Conscious Exercise

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Cortisol conscious exercise is exactly as it sounds: being conscious of how cortisol is released during exercise and developing a routine around that. For example, there are simple things you can do to make sure you’re not overdoing the cortisol production such as working out later in the day (when cortisol levels are lower), consuming carbs and proteins after you exercise (helps decrease cortisol response) and making sure to allow your body to rest.

Cortisol conscious exercise focuses on “careful calibration — versus go-for-broke grit —” and looks to incorporate shorter 30-minute training sessions in comparison to the hour or longer workouts some of us are so accustomed too. Plus, cortisol conscious exercise also incorporates longer recovery times between these short bursts of exercise. This is based on the theory that “skipping out on recovery and jumping straight into your next workout makes your body more vulnerable to injury.”

Plant-Based Stress-Reducing Food

Kale and Wild Rice Salad/One Green Planet

No matter what type of exercise you decide to incorporate into your routine, diet will play a huge part in your performance. If you’re looking to reduce your cortisol levels, it’s probably a good idea to take a whole-body health approach. Lowering stress levels in both mind and body will be overall beneficial. Luckily, there are foods that can help you do that! 

Green Leafy Veggies

Green Collard Wrap/One Green Planet

If you’re already practicing a plant-based lifestyle, then you’re most likely eating these veggies on a daily basis. Plus, when it comes to destressing, green leafy veggies can lend a hand. They are “rich in folate, which helps your body manufacture neurotransmitters (like serotonin and dopamine) that help regulate mood.” Plus, they are super easy to integrate into your daily menu. Some of the most popular green leafy veggies are kale — such as this Kale and Wild Rice Saladspinach — such as this Roasted Squash with Mushroom and Spinach Risotto — and collard greens — such as this simple Green Collard Wrap — to name just a few!

Dark Chocolate

Dark Chocolate Avocado Truffles/One Green Planet

Yep, you read that right.

Dark chocolate, in moderation, is actually very healthy for you! This decadent delight has been “shown to reduce stress hormones, including cortisol.” So, when you’re feeling anxious or stressed, take a few bites of that 70 percent or higher dark chocolate in your pantry, such as this Fair Trade Divine Mint Chocolate bar! The key are the antioxidants that “relax the walls of your blood vessels, hence lowering blood pressure and enhancing circulation.” You can also add dark chocolate to a slew of plant-based recipes such as this Dark Chocolate Brownie, these Dark Chocolate Avocado Truffles, or even this Super Quick Chocolate Porridge.

Fermented Foods

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It’s all about fermented foods these days!

You’ve probably seen fermented foods popping up everywhere. This is due to the research linking gut health to almost everything else in your body. Fermented foods are an important ingredient to keep the good bacteria in your gut healthy. Yet, did you also know that fermented foods can actually help lower stress? When you consume fermented foods, you are also consuming “the probiotic lactobacillus rhamnosus, which can lower the stress-induced hormone corticosterone, [and] can help ease stress.” You can make your own fermented foods at home such as this Dairy-Free Yogurt, this at home Kombucha (fermented tea), this Kimchi, or these Super-Easy Refrigerator Pickles.

For more stress-reducing plant-based foods, we highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for both Android and iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!