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Exercising for stress relief? Have fun!


August 15, 2012 | Published by

woman and child doing pushups together

If your stress response system is compromised, either reacting too much or too little, it is important to tailor the amount of exercise to a level your body can handle. This is because high intensity exercise or exercise of an extended duration tends to elicit a greater stress response. Adrenaline is secreted when exercise intensity is greater than 60% of your maximum and cortisol increases when exercise intensity rises above 85% or when you exercise for more than an hour. Here are some tips on exercising with adrenal fatigue:

  • Exercise should not grueling, debilitating or highly competitive
  • Pick something enjoyable! Remember: you’re working to bring back pleasure
  • On days you’re just not feeling it, start slow and ease into it
  • To avoid procrastination, set a routine time to exercise
  • Don’t overdo it! If you feel worse after a workout, take it easier next time
  • Exercise at your own pace – as stamina increases, so can your workout

Physical activity has a number of benefits, including promoting stress reduction, reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, and improving self-esteem. However, stress (either physical or mental) can actually influence the degree of benefit that exercise has on your body. Not only that, but stress can affect your perception and interpretation of both the difficulty and enjoyment of exercise.

Any kind of stress, including exercise, can elicit a stress response—a group of physiological adaptations that enable you to manage that stress. Hormones like adrenaline promote the “fight or flight” reaction. You have probably felt the effects of this if you’ve ever been competitive in your sport; poised and ready, your heart pounds and your muscles tense as you wait for the whistle, the gun or the pitch.

At the same time, your pupils dilate while blood, fuel and nutrients are rushed to your skeletal muscles so that you can run, throw, swing a bat, or kick quickly and powerfully. Another stress hormone, cortisol, moves stored energy into your muscles to allow them you continue to perform even after you get tired. Your body’s ability to increase these chemicals to adapt to stress and then return to normal levels after the stress is over is not only helpful in a game, match, or race, but beneficial to survival.

Sometimes this response gets out of balance. If you are subject to frequent extreme mental and physical stress, such as a police officer or firefighter might be, your body may have difficulty turning the stress response off and allowing you to recover. Having stress hormones circulating continually can actually increase some of the risks you were trying to reduce. If your stress has continued to the point that your stress response system can no longer respond appropriately, such as in the case of adrenal fatigue, you may have difficulty even secreting enough hormones to feel energized and able to handle day to day stressors, much less a vigorous athletic event.

Mental stress, even a relatively minor one—such as performing math problems—can dramatically increase your body’s stress response to exercise. Heart rate, breathing rate, and stress hormone levels (including cortisol) increase more when mental stress is added to physical exercise. If even a small mental stress exacerbates the cardiovascular, respiratory and stress responses of exercise, imagine the difference a larger stress can make. People who exercise when a mental stress is present perceive greater anxiety and report greater overall effort than they do with the same degree of physical exertion without the mental stress.

These findings have important implications for training. If you have a diminished stress response or adrenal fatigue, you are probably more likely to benefit from an enjoyable, low stress form of moderate exercise for less than an hour than from highly competitive exercise, high intensity exercise, or exercise that lasts for more than an hour.  Longer, more intense or more mentally stressful exercise can put additional demands on your stress response system. Have fun, take it easy, and listen to your body to get the benefits you want from exercise, both physically and psychologically.

Dr. Lise NaugleAbout the Author: Dr. Lise Naugle is an associate of Dr. James L. Wilson. She assists healthcare professionals with clinical assessment and treatment protocols related to adrenal dysfunction and stress, and questions regarding the use of Doctor Wilson’s Original Formulations supplements. With eleven years in private practice and a focus on stress, adrenals, hormonal balance and mind-body connection, she offers both clinical astuteness and a wealth of practical knowledge. Dr. Naugle also maintains updated information about the latest scientific research on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis function, endocrine balance and nutritional support for stress and develops educational materials about stress and health for clinicians and their patients.


Webb HE, Weldy ML, Fabianke-Kadue EC, Orndorff GR, Kamimori GH, Acevedo EO. Psychological stress during exercise: cardiorespiratory and hormonal responses. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2008 Dec;104(6):973-81. Epub 2008 Sep 2.

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  • Terri says:

    Dr Naugle, you rock!!

  • Debra Goley says:

    Lots of new information for me in this blog. Always knew some of the effects of stress on the body, but the info about how the intensity and duration of exercise can effect a person with a diminished stress response is new to me. Makes me feel better about my brisk (less than an hour) walk each day.

  • Richelle says:

    Great article! I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue about a year ago now. I haven’t had a period in two years and I’m 27. I was running long distance and doing two a day workouts back then. I stopped working out and just I’d yoga for four mo the shortly after I found out. I got really depressed though and starting doing crossfit and this really helped get me out of the depression. I haven’t been doing much yoga now and after a couple months of 5 crossfit workouts a week, not getting enough sleep and eating too low carb I started feeling really wired again. I’ve knocked the workouts down to 3 a week. I’ve been eating paleo for 6 months now also have been taking bio identical progesterone and estradiol for almost a year now as mine both tested low. Still no period though? I don’t feel like the crossfit workouts burn me out and i have bad no luck at loosing the abdominal fat I gained, although I’m trying not to focus on weight over health. It’s just frustrating and I’m wondering if I should be stopping crossfit completely and doing yoga instead. Also concerned about taking hormones for so long and worried my body may not produce it’s own.

    • Thanks for your question Richelle,

      Female endurance athletes are notorious for amenorrhea (lack of periods). It is often due to the intensity of training, low body fat, and sometimes eating disorders. However, the body can stop having periods for a number of reasons: insufficient progesterone or estrogen, too little body fat, too rigorous training, or too much stress in general, among other things. It is best that you work with a professional to revisit the female hormonal issue- addressing any other existing conditions (physical or emotional), other hormonal related symptoms, lab tests, stress level, etc. In addition, you might want to take the adrenal fatigue questionnaire and a salivary cortisol test (4 samples in one day) to determine whether or not your adrenal fatigue has resolved. If it hasn’t, it would be helpful to use supplements to support the healthy function of the glands and HPA axis. As for the diet, make sure you are taking in sufficient calories, especially if continuing your heavy workloads. It is always helpful to include something like yoga in a workout routine whether or not you choose to continue the cross fit. Cross training is key, addressing power/strength, endurance, and flexibility.

      We hope this helps!

      -Dr. Wilson’s Adrenal Fatigue Team

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