Finding Balance: How Exercise Impacts Cortisol levels

Jan 29, 2024
woman and child stretching in living room

Life is an incredible journey, but it often throws stress and challenges our way. If you're experiencing stress or burnout, know that you're not alone. The good news is that there's a powerful tool at your disposal – exercise! In this post, we'll delve into the vital connection between exercise and cortisol levels, providing you with actionable insights on how to restore balance in your life.

Exercise is essential to our health. Daily movement has so many mental and physical benefits. Regular exercise has been shown to help manage blood sugar levels, insulin levels, blood pressure and triglycerides. It has been shown to help lower anxiety levels and improve depressive symptoms. 

The physical stress exercise provides is also important for healthy aging- it keeps our bones strong and helps in preventing loss of muscle mass - something that starts after age 30. 

Understanding Cortisol:

Before we dive into the world of exercise, let's go back to the role of cortisol in our bodies. You can read the more in-depth post -here- . Briefly, cortisol, often termed the "stress hormone," is produced by our adrenal glands in response to stress. This natural response is crucial for our body's fight-or-flight mechanism. However, in today's fast-paced world, chronic stress can lead to persistently elevated cortisol levels, contributing to health issues such as weight gain, sleep disturbances, and mood swings.

Exercise as a Stress Buster:

The link between exercise and cortisol levels is a game-changer for managing stress. Regular physical activity has been shown to reduce cortisol levels and promote a more balanced hormonal profile. It also moderates stress systems and positively affects sleep quality and quantity (Nys, Anderson, Ofosu, Ryde, Connelly, & Whittaker, 2022). This mechanism involves the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the "rest and digest" system, countering the effects of the stress-induced sympathetic nervous system. You can read more about the parasympathetic nervous system in this -post-

Whether it's a brisk walk, a yoga session, or a dance class, finding an exercise that brings you joy can have profound effects on your stress levels. Exercise triggers the release of endorphins, your body's natural mood lifters, creating a sense of euphoria and acting as a powerful stress-reliever. The rhythmic and repetitive nature of many exercises induces a meditative state, further promoting relaxation and stress reduction.

Choosing the Right Exercise:

To maximize the stress-relieving benefits, find a routine that suits your preferences and fits seamlessly into your lifestyle. This isn't about pushing yourself to extremes; it's about finding enjoyment and relief. Consider activities you genuinely enjoy, as this increases the likelihood of sticking to your routine.

Activities like yoga, Pilates, or even a gentle jog can be excellent choices. Yoga, especially, stands out for its dual focus on physical movement and mindfulness. It not only helps lower cortisol levels but also improves mood and boosts overall well-being. The combination of stretching, deep breathing, and meditation in yoga contributes to a holistic approach to stress management.

Exercise is good for us, right? And if some is good, more is better! WRONG!

While sometimes strenuous exercise can leave us feeling empowered and rejuvenate our mind and body, if we are chronically stressed and have chronically high cortisol levels this type of exercise is often doing us more harm than good. Remember the conversation about allostatic load? Exercise is a form of stress (good stress, but still stress) and we have to be able to adapt to the extra it asks from us. If you are feeling depleted after a workout (not energized) or have a difficult time recovering from a workout, it might be time to consider if this activity is causing you to have unhealthy cortisol levels. 

Intense exercise has been shown to increase cortisol levels, ACTH and the catecholamines (norepinephrine, epinephrine and dopamine) which can lead to inhibition of protein synthesis and stimulation of protein degredation (Stachowicz & Lebiedzinska, 2016). Moderate to high intensity exercise provokes increases in circulating cortisol levels, while low intensity exercise has been shown to reduce circulating cortisol levels (Hill, Zack, Battaglini, Viru, Viru & Hackney, 2008). Light-to-moderate exercise is beneficial to modulate both stress and sleep (Nys, Anderson, Ofosu, Ryde, Connelly, & Whittaker, 2022). 

Timing of workouts can also be important- cortisol levels fluctuate throughout the day. Cortisol is generally higher in the morning and is supposed to lower throughout the day. However, we all have unique patterns and whether you’re a night owl or a early bird, finding the right time for you to exercise can be an important part in helping to keep cortisol levels in check. Morning people who exercise in the morning have lower cortisol spikes after exercise. Night owls or those who get a second wind in the evening also have less dramatic rises of cortisol if they exercise in the evening. Bonato et. al (2017) showed that people who exercises outside of their ideal times saw the biggest increases in post-workout cortisol and had poorer performance. 

The Importance of Consistency:

While the immediate benefits of a single exercise session are evident, long-term advantages require consistency. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week, spread across several days. Breaking it down into shorter sessions can make it more manageable, especially for those with busy schedules.

Consistency not only helps regulate cortisol levels but also contributes to other health benefits such as improved cardiovascular health, enhanced immune function, and better sleep. Establishing a regular exercise routine is an investment in your long-term physical and mental well-being.

Mind-Body Connection:

Beyond the physical benefits, certain exercises emphasize the mind-body connection, providing a comprehensive approach to stress management. Practices like mindfulness meditation or tai chi can help reduce stress and lower cortisol levels by promoting relaxation and a profound sense of calm.

Mindfulness meditation involves paying attention to the present moment without judgment. This practice has been associated with reduced cortisol levels and improved overall mental health. Incorporating mindfulness into your daily routine, even if only for a few minutes, can make a significant difference in your stress levels over time.

Tai chi, a low-impact martial art characterized by slow, flowing movements, is another excellent option. Not only does it engage both the body and mind, but it has also been shown to decrease cortisol levels and improve mood in various studies. The meditative nature of tai chi promotes a sense of tranquility, making it a valuable addition to your stress-busting toolkit.

Movement that also incorporates mindfulness (yoga, pilates, tai chi) has been shown to reduce cortisol and other stress markers such as c-reactive protein, blood pressure, heart rate, and tumor necrosis factor-alpha. 

Listen to Your Body:

Word to the wise: pay attention to your body's signals. If you're dealing with burnout, be gentle with yourself. Exercise is a tool for stress management, not an additional stressor. Rest and recovery are just as important as the exercise itself. Incorporate activities that promote relaxation, such as deep breathing exercises, gentle stretching, or a warm bath, to complement your fitness routine.

Understanding your body's limits and respecting them is key to avoiding overtraining, which can lead to increased cortisol levels and counteract the positive effects of exercise. Consider incorporating rest days into your weekly routine, allowing your body to recover and adapt to the physical stressors you've placed on it.


The journey to managing stress and finding balance is unique for each of us. Through the powerful combination of exercise and mindfulness, you can take charge of your cortisol levels and reclaim control over your well-being. Lace up those sneakers, roll out that yoga mat, and embark on a journey of self-care that will leave you feeling stronger, happier, and ready to embrace all that life has to offer.

Your well-being deserves it! Remember, it's not just about the physical aspects of exercise but also the mental and emotional benefits that come with incorporating movement into your daily life. So, whether you're a yoga enthusiast, a runner, or someone who loves to dance, find what brings you joy, and let it be your guide on the path to a healthier, more balanced life. Here's to your well-being and the wonderful journey ahead


Bonato M, La Torre A, Saresella M, Marventano I, Merati G, Vitale JA. Salivary cortisol concentration after high-intensity interval exercise: Time of day and chronotype effect. Chronobiol Int. 2017;34(6):698-707. doi: 10.1080/07420528.2017.1311336. Epub 2017 Apr 14. PMID: 28409690.

Hill, E.E., Zack, E., Battaglini, C. et al. Exercise and circulating Cortisol levels: The intensity threshold effect. J Endocrinol Invest 31, 587–591 (2008).

Nys, LD, Anderson, K, Ofosu, EF, Ryde, GC, Connelly, J, Whittaker, AC. The effects of physical activity on cortisol and sleep: A systematic review and meta-analysis. (2022) Psychoneuroendocrinology 143. DOI: 10.1016/j.psychoneuen.2022.105843

 Stachowicz, M. & Lebiedzinska, A. (2016). The effect of diet components of the level of cortisol. European Food Research and Technology (242), 2001-2009. DOI: 10.1007/s00217-016-2772-3

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