What is the relationship between cortisol and exercise in menopause? Is cortisol sabotaging your exercise results?
Understanding the Role of Cortisol and Exercise in Menopause
I’m a science girl, a prove-it-to-me girl.
I’m also a follow your gut and heart girl.
The science spiritual. Quite the diverse continuum.
I believe we all have the ability to use intuition and sense what’s best for our body.
However, we’ve been so conditioned to be “good” and do the right thing, that because that has gotten so confused… is the right thing cardio, or HIIT specifically, or weight training, or yoga, or long walks… and is it eating animal foods or plant foods… we wonder.
In the first a full series of audio recordings I’m doing exclusively for our Flipping 50 members only, I’m going to give you what I hope is an understanding of how cortisol is your friend if you let it, helping you to burn fat, or causing symptoms there for you to pick up.
Belly Fat in Menopause
Muffin top, as frustrating as it might be is not immediately life threatening. Yet, belly fat excess does become a heart health risk. In fact, cortisol signals like this left untapped is directly related to over 80 diseases.
We’re in control of that. But we’ve been conditioned to do the wrong thing. We no longer trust our guts, our hearts, and listen to tired as a signal to rest.
Instead, you override fatigue with caffeine and 5-hour energy. I’m not talking about your kids or your grandkids. In 2020 I’ve had 60-something women admit they’ve resorted to it and explained it away by saying they were just so tired. Listen, if you’re overweight, over tired, resorting to extremes like that, you’re drilling yourself into the ground and putting yourself and system under risky stress.
Let’s start with what cortisol does.
It is your energy hormone as well as your stress hormone.
Let’s agree that both of these things are good.
When you walk into a room full of people and you’re approached by someone who makes your hair stands on end… or you’re scared, even if only watching a movie, are signs of cortisol in part… and preparing you for fight-or-flight response.
Exercise is a self-induced type of flight or flight response.
And imagine how it works. If you did have to run from a monster, you got away from a difficult discussion, when you’re on the other side and safely escaped you exhale and feel restored again. Exercise provides a similar relief like that for many who are stressed. You may have a little too much adrenaline and cortisol (the adrenal glands signal the production of cortisol) and the exercise can do a satisfying job of helping to release that.
HPA Axis Dysfunction
For those with adrenal fatigue, they’ve been operating on overdrive for weeks or months without a recharge or break, they may experience weight loss, lethargy, fatigue. Let me be clear that adrenal fatigue is not a term recognized by Western medicine. But the HPA Axis Dysfunction is, and they are actually referencing the same situation. Long periods of high stress, can result in low levels of cortisol.
During perimenopause estrogen levels begin to drop and cortisol begins to rise. The body has a way of wanting to find balance. The problem where muscle is concerned is lower estrogen makes it harder to keep or gain lean muscle, and cortisol causes more muscle breakdown.
That’s a terrible one-two punch.
If you’re guilty of thinking you can coast on coffee and not eat ‘til noon, or you’re not treating sleep like the goddess it is and it can make you, you’ve got even more cortisol blocking any efforts you’re making from exercise. In fact, even an appropriate amount of exercise for someone else is too much for you when you’ve got all these other factors going on.
If you ruminate as many women do, thinking about the same problem and amplifying it instead of learning skills to stop that monkey mind and change your thoughts, emotions, and therefore your hormones you may have a harder time losing weight once this cortisol train gets started.
Your exercise is just as important but it’s more important that you get small regular doses that don’t increase cortisol too much and that lead to the post exercise decrease in cortisol you want. Your food needs to support your hormones. Healthy fat, ample protein, and tons of green vegetables are a good start.
The levels of cortisol rise and fall throughout the day. Usually highest at about 8am and lowest at 2am. That is so you do have energy during the day, and can relax and get to sleep in the night. Of course, if all is well. You may be having wakings or night sweats as a result of blood sugar levels, other hormones, or your cortisol levels. There are steps to support yourself, and definite steps you want to take to avoid throwing yourself under the bus.
Let’s outline some of the steps to support Cortisol and Exercise
Choose your exercise type and timing based on your hormone status.
To do this you’ll wonder what is my hormone status. You can test your hormones in a lab, and you can use the signs & symptoms chart in You Still Got It, Girl! And the After 50 Fitness Formula course to know how to respond. No matter if you do use lab tests you should listen to how you feel. Lab tests vary, and using norms can suggest you’re normal when you feel terrible. This is because optimal levels are not the same as comparing yourself to the average of a lot of people who don’t feel well. That’s essentially what “norms” are.
Your Cortisol & Exercise Relationship is Unique
No longer are ‘position statements’ and ‘guidelines for physical activity’ enough for anyone really, but in particular a woman in midlife going through the biggest hormone shift in her life.
You need a hormone balancing fitness expert. Because inevitably, you have not only hormones status to consider – which has too long been ignored – but you have a health history, joints and conditions true of you right now.
Diverse Needs Even in Menopause
There are commonalities among women in midlife, but there are still a diverse number of needs. There are women in the 60s starting to do triathlon for the first time ever, 70-year-olds doing Ironman distance triathlons, and there are women who are suffering from arthritis, fibromyalgia, and with other health concerns, who are all going through hormonal changes. Do not allow yourself to label yourself as “almost 70” or “way over 50” and tie meaning to it. Your desire, your prior history, your current hormone status and joint health all matter in your exercise plan.
For healthy women in midlife, with energy, but not potentially as much as they like, High Intensity exercise performed early in the day while cortisol levels are naturally high is best.
The #2 Tenent of Flipping 50 is “Intense Early, Light Late.” That alliteration will help you remember.
You can do light level exercise any time. Short walks, longer walks, yoga, SUP.. do what you love. Yet, high intensity done late can disrupt your hormones and have a more negative effect than positive.
When late day your body doesn’t have the cortisol that creates the energy for exercise, it will beg, borrow, and steal from another hormone that can be converted to cortisol, pregnenolone.
Fight the urge to “catch up” and hit the quota of exercise.
Please realize that you’ve been conditioned to “exercise more and eat less” for decades in order to lose weight. In midlife, this will backfire more than it ever has. It may also backfire for younger women, but never more than for you. The hormone changes you experience during menopause and that forever change you, mean using the wisdom of working with your body instead of punishing it with discipline will get you to your goal faster and with more ease than will pushing.
Pay attention to frequent muscle or joint injuries and illness
Cortisol causes muscle breakdown. Your thyroid eventually also can’t fully function when you’re allowed yourself to be stressed for long periods of time. Poor thyroid function can be related to your ligament health. There are a higher number of injuries among midlife women. Those frenzied workouts, or those that lack progression – even too quickly using intervals of long work duration and short recovery duration, and instructions to do as many reps as possible (AMRAP) in a specific time all encourage poor form especially as you tire.
Your immune system will be boosted if you’re exercising appropriately for your adrenal status. But you’ll be constantly fighting the next cold or flu if you’re not using exercise instead to restore and to support. Exposure to an illness alone does not mean illness. A weak immune system does.
Pay attention to your personal demand for perfection, for having a strong opinion, for needing things a certain way and for the need to internalize your emotions, thoughts, and beliefs.
Since there’s no separation of mind, body, and soul, stress can show up quietly or loudly as you spin out of control. Know your stress signs. Know who causes you to feel them. While reaching for exercise to reduce or negate your stress level is something many women do, you need to reach for the right type. A run might be appropriate for some, while yoga or a short slow walk may be most beneficial.
Define your toolbox based on the repair that needs to be done.
The first thing coming out of fatigue from stress would be small, short, and low intensity movement. Notice I said movement. That is walking, yoga, stretching, Pilates, for instance. Maybe for you its stand up paddle board or a light swim.
Next would be strength training. Long before, if ever, there is increased endurance exercise, strength.
Every woman will do well to reach muscular fatigue. Challenge your major muscle groups. But you may in the beginning use 3 exercises for major muscles and repeat them 3 times, to complete a workout (not counting warm up and cool down) in about 10 minutes.
Cortisol disrupts your blood sugar.
It will elevate it. That then increases insulin. Cortisol and insulin together team up to redistribute fat to the belly.
Cortisol has the ability to:
- Grow baby fat cells to big ones
- Create new fat cells
- Relocate fat cells to the belly
When cortisol levels are taking you on a roller coaster ride, you will experience more cravings. Choosing poorly, will increase the likelihood that those choices are stored as fat in the belly.
Exercise and Cortisol-Derived Belly Fat
Stubborn cortisol belly fat of the visceral type, can be easier to remove however.
By doing much less than you believe you “should” you may decrease your cortisol level.
Imagine being at the gate of the most desirable destination, you’ve made it all this way, traveled so far, but you’re knocking, and they won’t let you in. Cortisol is the gatekeeper. Your efforts to get there won’t be recognized until you’ve done the foundational work. You’re going to have to go get the broom of the wicked witch and then come back.
You’re going to in other words, have to eliminate the gate. Cortisol reduction is supported by you finding your personal stress toolbox.
Your Stress Toolbox should have:
Nutrition – higher protein, moderate high quality resistant starches, healthy fat, all taken at the right time and dose – food is medicine
Sleep – if you’re uptight just hearing this, you’re likely not sleeping well, and the thought of going to bed stirs you up due to frustration. There are two dozen potential steps to support you. They can’t be random or inconsistent and you don’t need them all, you need to find the ones that work.
Stress exposure reduction – people, toxic chemicals, situations, electronics, processed foods, food sensitivities,
Love, joy – what do you do that you love, who do you surround yourself for support
Laughter, humor – smiling and cortisol don’t go together
Purpose – it may mean you work hard, but you’ll do it with ease because it pulls you and lights you up
Recovery – you may need this one more than any if cortisol is closing the gate on your success right now. It is not any one thing for all of us. It is your personal perception of reality that allows or prevents your ability to experience stressful situations and respond either with your health intact or have it suffer. If you didn’t learn, weren’t taught, stress skills it’s never too late.
What will you do with results? The test gives you a measure. However, that will be a benchmark for you. You still must do – in this case, the heavy resting.
It is most often the woman who does so much. Who loves to exercise. Who may have few other vices, that finds herself falling into cortisol imbalance.
For testing your cortisol levels
Saliva tests are the gold standard. You’re seeing the cortisol in real time and 4 key times of day. You’ll hold a cotton in your mouth until it is saturated with saliva and deposit in a tube. It’s simple, it’s done at home, then mailed to a lab where you’ll then see your results in a portal.
- Cortisol is the energy hormone.
- Cortisol is the stress hormone.
Harnessing the power of cortisol can help you get things done and get far better exercise results.
If you support your own natural hormone balance with responsible exercise for the current status, whether you are taking hormone supplementation or choose not to, fitness is easier, requires less effort, and contributes to longevity.
Cortisol and Exercise Combination
There is a wrong exercise, and right exercise at the wrong time, that will negatively impact your hormone balance.
Have you gone on vacation? Eaten deliciously, exercised far less, though you moved more than usual, and returned home to find you lost weight, feel tremendously rested?
That’s the power of cortisol reduction. Put down the weight tracking attachment to the scale, the required quota to exercise unless you feel rested, restored and ready, and allow yourself to trust again.
Your body doesn’t lie. She’s telling you what to do. Every sign and symptom is a message that what you’re doing is not working. Pills, creams, and patches should not do the heavy lifting. You should, when you’re ready and you’ve earned the right to do so but filling up any hole you’ve dug yourself into.
Resources Mention in this episode: