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Wellness Trends 2024: What are cortisol conscious workouts?

heeral-patel-bio

Reviewed byHeeral Patel

Lady in home performing a yoga stretch
How could your ‘fight or flight’ hormone affect your workouts? Here, you'll find out more about cortisol, a stress hormone, and how exercise may affect it.
Although exercise is great for your energy and mental wellbeing, there are certain exercises thought to spike your cortisol – which may not be helpful sometimes.1

Could your gym routine be part of the problem...?

What is cortisol?

It’s a hormone most famous for triggering your ‘fight or flight’ response.2 Chances are it’s saved your life, or at least got you out of some scary situations.

Cortisol gets your heart racing and your breathing fast when you’re threatened.2 But it also plays a part in functions like your metabolism, your inflammatory response, and your immune function.2

Is cortisol harmful?

Cortisol can be helpful! Aside from its threat response, it helps to regulate your metabolism and increase the availability of blood glucose to the brain.2

But it can misjudge exactly what’s a matter of life and death (especially in modern society when we’re not fighting off sabre-toothed tigers). High cortisol can leave you feeling in ‘fight or flight’ when there’s no threat.

How can you tell if it’s too high?

It’s important to note that serious cortisol imbalances can lead to medical conditions that need professional advice.2

Cortisol ebbs and flows throughout the day, so some fluctuation is normal. But a higher baseline level of cortisol may be a sign of chronic stress.3

In otherwise healthy people, lowering your cortisol levels may help with symptoms of stress. See your GP if you’re experiencing any of the signs below. Signs can include:
  • weight gain, especially around the face and abdomen 
  • feeling tired and foggy 
  • gut issues 
  • insomnia or poor sleep 
  • facial hair growth in women
According to the NHS, high cortisol may also worsen menopause symptoms.4

Cortisol conscious workouts

Cortisol conscious workouts made our Wellness Trends Report this year, with it predicted to be the next step in mind- and body-friendly workouts:

“By considering levels of cortisol, a hormone secreted more when we’re stressed, gym goers will be prescribed more mindful movements as part of their training programmes, with this holistic approach expected to go mainstream in 2024.”

Wellness Trends Report 2024

But what kinds of exercise can help lower cortisol...?

Yoga

It’s no surprise that yoga makes the list for a more relaxing workout. It’s been used to connect the body and mind for up to 5000 years.5

One study comparing the effects of daily yoga, antidepressant medication, and both, showed the greatest decrease in cortisol levels among the yoga-only group. Although this study only involved 54 patients, there’s no harm in doing some mindful stretching! 6

Separate research showed lower cortisol and higher self-confidence after just one session of hatha yoga.7

Of course, this isn’t to say that yoga is recommended as the sole treatment for medically diagnosed anxiety or depression – you should always speak to your GP about these. But you may find a yoga session soothing after a particularly tough day.

Walking

Just 20 minutes of walking outdoors is enough to lower your cortisol – so even a lunchtime stroll could help.8

Japanese studies have explored the power of Shinrin-yoku (‘forest bathing’). Simply walking in a woodland setting has been shown to lower cortisol and pulse rate more than in a city environment.9,10

What else should I consider?

Unless you’ve been medically advised, you shouldn’t give up any exercise that you enjoy. However, you might choose to: 
  • reduce your frequency of intense workouts or avoid certain kinds when you’re already feeling stressed 
  • think about the time of day that you’re exercising. Cortisol is usually higher in the morning, so consider shifting your workout to the evening if you're feeling frazzled 2
Exercise alone won’t treat medical conditions related to cortisol levels, so always see a GP if you’re concerned about the way you're feeling.

The final say

Every kind of exercise has its benefits, so don’t feel like you have to say goodbye to your favourites.

But the occasional cortisol-conscious workout may be just what you need to help your mind and body slow down.

Disclaimer

The advice in this article is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP or healthcare professional before trying any treatments or remedies. Food supplements must not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle.
 

Sources

1. NHS. Benefits of exercise [Internet]. NHS [reviewed 2021 Aug 4; cited 2024 Mar 11]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/exercise-health-benefits/
2. Thau L, Gandhi J, Sharma S. Physiology, Cortisol. StatPearls [Internet]. Last updated 2023 Aug 28 [cited 2024 Mar 11]. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538239/
3. Harvard Health Publishing. Yoga could slow the harmful effects of stress and inflammation [Internet]. Harvard Health Publishing [2020 Aug 10; cited 2024 Mar 11]. Available from: https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/yoga-could-slow-the-harmful-effects-of-stress-and-inflammation-2017101912588
4. NHS. Menopause: a healthy lifestyle guide [Internet]. NHS [reviewed 2021 Oct 11; cited 2024 Mar 11]. Available from: https://www.cuh.nhs.uk/patient-information/menopause-a-healthy-lifestyle-guide/
5. Pandurangi AK, Keshavan MS, Ganapathy V, Gangadhar BN. Yoga: Past and Present. The American Journal of Psychiatry [Internet]. 2017 Jan 1 [cited 2024 Mar 11]; 174(1): 16-17. Available from: https://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/appi.ajp.2016.16080853
6. Thirthalli J, Naveen GH, Rao MG, Varambally S, Christopher R, Gangadhar BN. Cortisol and antidepressant effects of yoga. Indian J Psychiatry [Internet]. 2013 Jul [cited 2024 Mar 11]; 55(Suppl 3): 405-408. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3768222/
7. Benvenutti MJ, da Silva Alves E, Michael S, Ding D, Stamatakis E, Edwards KM. A single session of hatha yoga improves stress reactivity and recovery after an acute psychological stress task – A counterbalanced, randomized-crossover trial in healthy individuals. Complement Ther Med [Internet]. 2017 Dec [cited 2024 Mar 11]; 35 120-126. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29154056/
8. Hunter MR, Gillespie BW, Chen SY. Urban Nature Experiences Reduce Stress in the Context of Daily Life Based on Salivary Biomarkers. Front. Psychol. [Internet]. 2019 Apr 4 [cited 2024 Mar 11]; 10. Available from: https://www.frontiersin.org/journals/psychology/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00722/full
9. Park BJ, Tsunetsugu Y, Kasetani T, Kagawa T, Miyazaki Y. The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan. Environ Health Prev Med [Internet]. 2010 Jan 15 [cited 2024 Mar 11]; 15(1): 18-26. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2793346/
10. Kobayashi H, Song C, Ikei H, Park BJ, Kagawa T, Miyazaki Y. Combined Effect of Walking and Forest Environment on Salivary Cortisol Concentration. Front Public Health [Internet]. 2019 Dec 12 [cited 2024 Mar 11]; 7: 376. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6920124/
 
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