With Class Pass, fancy gyms and online websites….there is a plethora of workouts. And it seems that HIIT is all the rage these days. High intensity workouts that get your heart rate up, leave your muscles sore and promise to burn the max amount of calories and fat.
Culture also tells us that the more you workout and exercise…the healthier you will be. I often talk about “appropriate” exercise because more is not more when it comes to movement. And every person has a different exercise threshold. What is appropriate for one person isn’t appropriate for the next person. And even more importantly, what is appropriate for your body in this season of your life might not be appropriate in the next season of your life. What is considered appropriate and healthy movement will depend on other stressors going on in our lives at any point in time.
Exercise is a stressor. And a good one if used appropriately. But it’s still a stressor.
When you exercise, cortisol (stress hormone) levels rise. Cortisol is essential to the body and we do need it – in the case of exercise it helps to repair the tissue damage that accumulates so you can recover and become stronger from the workout/movement. Then cortisol levels return to baseline and the body settles back into homeostasis.
How your body responds to the stressor of exercise and the rate to which it recovers depends heavily on your allostatic load. What’s your allostatic load? Basically it’s the sum of all the crap in your life that causes physical, emotional, and mental stress. Like your boss being a punk, finances being tight, caring for a newborn, lack of sleep, that coffee that wtf spilled all over your shirt…even good things like wedding planning or moving or starting a new career…those all contribute.
Your allostatic load plays an important part in determining how well you’re able to handle and recover from stress – in this case, exercise. If you didn’t get a good night of sleep or if you’re going through a busy season at work and on top of that you’re dealing with emotional stress in one of your relationships. And then you stress about working out or about how much you’re eating or you’re really stressed with how your body looks. Boom. It’s all going to come crashing down and then…
Exercise is not a positive stressor in your life.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, imagine you’re getting a solid 7-8 hours of sleep, feeling comfortable at your job, relationships with friends/spouse/family are in a relatively healthy place, you’re eating well and not surviving on coffee…well, the stress of exercise on your body now looks very different. Assuming you’re not exhausting yourself with workouts every day and you’re enjoying the way you move your body – you will respond very differently to the stress of exercise. Because this is a productive stressor. Productive stressors are short in duration, infrequent, make you feel good, inspire you to be your best self, and add to your life.
Bad, chronic stress on the other hand beats you down, is ongoing, feels exhausting, is burdensome, feels overwhelming, creates anxiety and worry and detracts from you living your best life. You won’t recover well from this kind of stress.
But here is the most important part: everyone responds to stress differently and everyone has a different threshold they can handle. Whether that’s emotional, physical, or mental stress. And that includes stress induced by exercise. Some people can handle a lot more stress and hustle and intensity than others. Example: some people thrive in New York City for 10+ years, running around and being on the go for 16 hours a day and actually thrive (I’m not talking about the “everything’s okay but really I’m dying inside” New Yorker) and other people, like me, simply cannot sustain that pace here in the city without becoming undone. I need slowness and simple commutes and an early bedtime and normal, 40 hour work weeks.
We each have a unique stress sweet spot. What is enough positive stress to inspire you to be your best self and allow you to thrive and contribute to the world? And when is it too much to where you start to deteriorate, feel depleted and lose yourself?
Too much stress aka cortisol and things get whacked out. Self care is vital in order to decrease your allostatic load. And part of that is paying attention to your exercise habits and how they affect your body – which is something we often don’t pay enough attention to. And that can cause some problems.
Inappropriate exercise = elevated cortisol which affects your HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary axis)
Cortisol suppresses GnRH (gonadotropin releasing hormone) which then suppresses the release of LH (luteinzing hormone) and FSH (follicle stimulating hormone) –> when these get suppressed your ovaries are no longer stimulated and your menstrual cycle goes missing and infertility creeps in. Additionally, chronic stress from inappropriate exercise has been shown to decrease estrogen and progesterone levels in women too. Think decreased libido, dry skin, irritability and all kinds of other not fun things.
When the HPA is disrupted, hypothyroidism can also manifest due to stress and elevated levels of cortisol. Keep in mind that inadequate nutrition and poor sleep also affect your HPA. And if your HPA is disrupted for long enough causing decreased hormone levels that can lead to osteopenia or even worse, osteoporosis (side note: there are other causes of bone loss but that’s a whole other post) You need estrogen to absorb calcium and you need adequate calcium (and vitamin D) to maintain strong, healthy bones. And studies show synthetic estrogen by way of birth control does not prevent bone loss. I don’t say that at all to instill fear, but rather empower you with knowledge about how our bodies work so you can better care for your whole self.
Stress comes from a lot of different sources and we will be fighting to maintain a reasonable allostatic load our entire lives. If you feel like you have too much stress going on think of turning on your parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) system and calming your sympathetic (“fight or flight”) system — this is key to lowering stress. Focus on getting back to basics with good self care, eating well (aka enough and getting enough fats/carbs), sleeping well, resting your mind, and doing exercise that isn’t balls to the walls all the time. There’s nothing wrong with a hard workout that feels good and gets the endorphins flowing, but if you already lead a stressful life and that’s your only form of exercise….some quiet and gentle movement along with some deep breathing might be just what you need instead.