Exercise & Stress: Good or Bad?

Exercise & Stress: Good or Bad?

In our fast-paced world, stress has become an all-too-common experience. The sources of stress are numerous – ranging from work pressures and family responsibilities to financial worries and health concerns. Amidst this whirlwind of stressors, a common dilemma that people grapple with is whether or not they should exercise when feeling stressed. There are a lot of mixed messages out there, so let’s look at some facts.

Intense Exercise and Stress Hormones

When engaging in intense exercise, our bodies experience a surge in stress hormones, notably cortisol. This is an automatic, physiological response designed to aid performance during physically demanding situations. This cortisol spike is short-lived, returning to baseline levels after the exercise is completed. While the immediate association of cortisol with stress might lead one to believe that this could exacerbate stress levels, the actual mechanics of this process suggest otherwise.

The heightened levels of cortisol experienced during intense exercise act as a form of ‘stress inoculation’. This means that the body becomes somewhat acclimatized to stress, resulting in a less pronounced cortisol response to subsequent stressors encountered in everyday life. Over time, regular vigorous exercise can train our bodies to manage cortisol levels more effectively, which in turn leads to a reduction in the overall stress response.

This is why, despite the temporary increase in stress hormones during exercise, the long-term benefits for stress management can be substantial. Regular intense exercise can essentially help our bodies become better equipped to handle stress, enabling us to navigate through life’s challenges with greater ease and resilience.

Exercise and Endorphins

Endorphins, often referred to as the body’s natural painkillers, are released in response to physical activities, like exercise. They interact with the neurons in our brain that reduce our perception of pain and trigger positive feelings, sometimes even creating a euphoric state famously known as the “runner’s high.” Beyond just providing temporary relief and relaxation, these endorphins also work to improve sleep quality and mood, both of which are often negatively affected by stress. So, it’s not just an immediate sense of relief that endorphins provide – they contribute to a more sustained resilience against stress. The more we exercise, the more we equip our body with these natural stress fighters, thereby building a stronger defense mechanism against future stressors.

People running

Regular Exercise and Cortisol Rhythm

Regular exercise not only strengthens your muscles and improves cardiovascular health, but it also plays a significant role in supporting a healthy cortisol rhythm. When our bodies are exposed to stress, cortisol, the body’s primary stress hormone, is released into our system. This is the body’s natural mechanism for dealing with stressful situations. However, with frequent exercise, our bodies gradually adapt to stress. This adaptation leads to a more balanced and controlled release of cortisol, preventing the sudden spikes that can cause feelings of anxiety and tension.

The rhythm of cortisol release throughout the day is also modulated by regular physical activity. In a healthy cortisol rhythm, levels are high in the morning to help us wake up and gradually decrease throughout the day. Exercise can help maintain this rhythm, preventing disruptions that can lead to sleep issues, mood fluctuations, and other stress-related problems.

Moreover, the act of consistently engaging in physical activity sends a signal to your body that you are taking care of yourself. This physiological feedback generates a positive mental state and intensifies your resilience to stress. Regular exercise not only supports a healthy cortisol rhythm but also paves the way for a more balanced and stress-resilient lifestyle.

Yoga, Tai Chi and Stress Reduction

Yoga and Tai Chi, forms of mind-body exercises, have been particularly identified as effective stress combatants due to their ability to induce a parasympathetic state—often referred to as the ‘rest and digest’ mode—in the nervous system. Yoga, with its combination of controlled breathing, physical postures, and meditation, helps to relax the body and mind, lowering heart rates and blood pressure, thus reducing the body’s overall stress response. Similarly, Tai Chi, often described as meditation in motion, involves a series of slow, flowing movements and deep breathing. This practice fosters a state of relaxation and calm, counteracting the body’s stress response, and thereby reducing the levels of stress hormones circulating in the body. The focus these exercises place on breath control and mindfulness also helps to quiet the mind, promoting mental clarity and emotional stability. Regular participation in Yoga and Tai Chi can effectively manage and reduce stress levels, contributing to overall mental and physical wellbeing.

Running, Intense Exercise and Adrenal Fatigue

Intense exercises such as running can sometimes have surprising implications on our adrenal health. The adrenal glands, located atop our kidneys, produce a variety of hormones including cortisol—the body’s primary stress hormone.

In the context of an athlete or regular runner, the continuous strain from intense training could potentially place the body in a continuous state of stress. Without adequate rest and recovery, this may lead to an overtaxed adrenal system, and potentially, adrenal fatigue. This, in turn, could negatively impact performance and overall health.

It’s critical to note, however, that proper balance is key. Regular exercise is crucial for maintaining good health, resilience, and stress management, as outlined in the previous sections. The potential for adrenal fatigue serves as a reminder that rest and recovery are just as important as the workout itself, stressing the importance of listening to one’s body and maintaining a balanced exercise regimen.

Adrenal Lab Testing

Adrenal Gland Health Check

Staying attuned to your body’s needs is critical for maintaining optimal health. In this regard, it is highly advisable to undergo an annual adrenal gland health check. This test examines the health of your adrenal glands, which produce critical hormones like cortisol that regulate the stress response and other vital functions. An annual check can help detect any imbalances in your circadian rhythm as well as the production of these hormones. Imbalances in these hormones can lead to symptoms like fatigue, low energy levels, mood changes and more.

During your adrenal checkup, Dr. Ryan can provide a comprehensive health evaluation, identify any potential issues, and prescribe a personalized treatment plan to help optimize  your adrenal gland health and overall well-being. Schedule your Functional Medicine Checkup here.  This proactive approach to maintaining your health is essential for managing stress and reducing its long-term effects on the body.


In conclusion, exercise plays a crucial role in managing and reducing stress levels. Regular physical activity helps release endorphins, our body’s natural painkillers that contribute to a more sustained resilience against stress. It supports a healthy cortisol rhythm, prevents disruptions in the body’s stress response, and fosters a positive mental state. Mind-body exercises like Yoga and Tai Chi are particularly effective in reducing stress levels by inducing a parasympathetic state. However, it’s essential to maintain balance and listen to your body’s needs to avoid overtaxing the adrenal glands and prevent potential issues like adrenal fatigue.  An annual adrenal checkup can help detect any imbalances and a personalized treatment plan can help optimize your overall adrenal gland health and well-being.  So, get moving and experience the many benefits that exercise has to offer for both your body and mind!

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