The relationship between exercise and stress

From boosting your energy and supporting your heart, to promoting cardiovascular health - there's no denying that those who exercise regularly are reaping some serious health benefits. But without proper recovery, the right fuel and a healthy stress response, your exercise routine could be causing more harm than good.

Man going swimming on beach looking at view

Exercise and your stress hormones

Exercise stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, which induces a coordinated response from multiple body systems. This arm of the nervous system is responsible for your ‘fight or flight’ response, also known as your stress response. Your stress response can be triggered for many different reasons, and each time it’s activated – stress hormones like cortisol rise to help your body make use of its energy reserves. While many of us rely on exercise to relieve stress, some forms of exercise actually stimulate the sympathetic nervous system. In response to the physical changes required to sustain the body during more intense forms of exercise (think: increased blood flow, expansion of the lungs and contraction of the muscles), cortisol is released to help the body rise to the physical challenge.

It often gets a bad rap, but cortisol has many key functions like supporting your immune system, regulating blood sugar and it’s largely responsible for helping you ‘get-up-and-go' in the morning. While this stress hormone is involved in almost every body system and we need it to function – if you’re producing it in excess, it can start to cause trouble. In a healthy stress response, cortisol rises in response to stress then returns to normal levels once the perceived ‘stress’ has passed. If you’re under constant, prolonged stress – cortisol can remain high. Long term exposure to elevated levels of cortisol can negatively impact how you feel each day – from your mood and energy levels, to your sleep and how your sex hormones function.

In many cases, exercise acts as a positive type of stress on the body – and it can help increase resilience to future stress. But for exercise to be effective and to give you the mental and physical results you want – having a healthy stress response and working to maintain a balanced nervous system is key.

When exercise doesn’t relieve stress

In a healthy stress response, the benefits of exercise will far outweigh any negative effects that a spike in cortisol might bring. But if you tend to carry a heavy stress load in your everyday life, adding in an intense amount of exercise to your weekly routine could be un-doing all of the hard work you put into your fitness goals. While high intensity exercise has been shown to support our athletic abilities in many ways, the body still perceives this kind of intensity as a stress. If you’re dealing with stress in other areas of your life or you’re feeling mentally or emotionally exhausted, choosing to ramp up your exercise routine might not be the best approach.

Encouraging a constant spike of cortisol can switch your body into a prolonged state of 'fight or flight'. When you're operating from this state of stress, the last thing your body is concerned with is prioritizing recovery, preserving muscle and making sure you feel energized for your next workout. Instead, any body functions required for your immediate survival will take precedence instead.

Signs that your exercise routine might be increasing stress on the body:

  • Lack of energy and motivation
  • Less power in your movements
  • Poor injury recovery
  • Nervous tension or increased everyday stress
  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Feeling emotionally, physically and mentally drained

The good news is, there are plenty of things you can do to manage your stress response so you can reap the most benefits from your exercise regimen.

How to approach exercise with your stress response in mind

Time your workouts right

Research shows that the timing of your workouts can help regulate cortisol production and reduce the post-workout cortisol spike. Since cortisol naturally rises in the early hours of the morning, riding the cortisol wave and getting your workout in soon after you wake up can help you make the most out of your natural energy levels – without spiking your stress hormones unnecessarily. Getting your exercise out of the way earlier in the day will also reduce any cortisol spikes in the late afternoon, when your stress hormones should naturally start to lower before bed.

Mix it up

If you identify as a bit of a stress-head and you’re just learning about the relationship between stress and exercise, don’t worry – you don’t need to say goodbye to your tempo runs or HIIT classes. Instead, take a look at your workout schedule and either lower the amount of workouts you’re doing each week or adjust the intensity. Maybe you decide to sub one HIIT class for a long walk instead. Rather than keeping your routine rigid, it may help to assess your energy levels each day and decide on a form of exercise that reflects how you’re feeling. Learning to listen to your body will help you determine when it’s time to push through a tough workout or take a rest day instead. Assessing what your stress levels are like, how energized you feel and how much fuel you have in the tank before each workout will ultimately help you balance your stress response – and help you reach your fitness goals.

Prioritize recovery

Recovery is a crucial part of any healthy lifestyle – especially for those who want to get the most out of their workouts and maximize their performance. Prioritizing your protein intake (getting in a good quality source of protein with each meal), eating balanced meals and taking regular rest days are the pillars of exercise recovery. While the post-workout endorphins can make you want to power through a week of consecutive workouts, your body and your nervous system will thank you for scheduling in a rest day (or two!).

Support your cells

While exercise can be perceived as a stress on the body, there are many other hidden stressors that are often forgotten about. From UV rays and poor nutrition to lack of sleep and everyday stress – each day your body fights to adapt to stress of all kinds to keep you at a happy equilibrium.

Meanwhile, your cells are faced with their own ongoing battle – free radicals. As a byproduct of generating energy for you to function, your cells produce free radicals that can actually cause a large amount of internal stress. If your body doesn't have the resources to deal with this stress at a cellular level, it can become a lot harder to cope with those everyday factors that are interpreted as stress – including your training.

So how can you help support your cells from stress? One of the most effective ways to help the body fight free radicals is to increase your intake of antioxidants. But the tricky thing is – most antioxidants have trouble reaching the vast majority of your body’s free radicals. The good news is that MitoQ was specifically designed to be able to reach these free radicals, so human cells could be supported like never before.

Learn about the science of MitoQ

Where are you sitting on the burnout scale?

Burnout typically unfolds in three phases. By addressing the signs early, you can implement practices to maintain a healthier, more energized state.

Read more

How to reduce stress in 5 minutes

Even just a few minutes of practicing these stress management tools each day can improve how your body copes with stress of all kinds.

Read more