Exercise-Induced Stress in Midlife Women | How to Avoid It

Exercise-induced stress can interfere with your goals! Whether you want weight loss, to be stronger, faster or boost bone density. So let’s unpack why it happens and what you can do about it. 

Your cortisol levels follow a circadian rhythm, peaking in the morning and declining at the end of the day. But they can fluctuate based on what you’re experiencing.

Stress is anything that triggers the adrenal glands to produce more cortisol. So, any stress (mental, emotional, or physical) can cause a cortisol response in the body.

Stress in contemporary life is a regular thing. It’s ever-present in kids, aging parents, traffic, travel, worry about illness, politics, social media.

AND… stress for midlife women can be worse – because we’re more susceptible to negative effects of stress when estrogen levels decline.

A cortisol rise is the body’s answer in order to convert cortisol into estrogen. That doesn’t work well, but the cortisol is still an issue because it’s catabolic (breaks down muscle) and at some point, that chronic output of stress will hit a wall.

That means… the same stressors we dealt with before may be too much for us in midlife. The same… work stress, exercise stress, diet stress can add up differently during early to late stages of menopause than they did when we were younger.

With stress, different signs and symptoms of stress show up. Like weight gain, belly fat, terribly low energy – especially if you’re exercising and experience that – it’s a sign that you need to step back, exercise a little less. The #1 tenet (of 10) at Flipping 50 is Restore Before More.

But Exercise Is a Stress Reliever!

I hear you.

Exercise is a physical stressor, though. Even when it is a stress reliever. It first causes an increase in stress.  Yet, when you’re overall “load” of stress is/was lower you’re okay with this because it’s controlled. You exercise, you’re done, you fuel and go on with your day. 

In midlife, you may be in that perfect storm with relative stressors all slightly higher compounding the fact your body’s changing hormones also increase the impact of cortisol. So the same exercise… you did fine last year… could lead to changes you don’t want.

At one point, when life was easy or at least smooth and predictable, exercise was a good, predictable kind of stress. Exercise-induced stress was reasonable. It rose during and fell after.

But now, amidst hormonal changes that can be less predictable and other life changes so common in midlife that you’re experiencing…

Plus, the cumulative effect of a lifetime of exposure to different toxins…

Plus, the changes for ourselves, work life, parents and kids… during and after a pandemic…

…it’s easier to reach a point of stress overload.

So, since stress comes from all sources and adds up collectively, the first step to mitigate is eliminating sources where you can.

There are big things and small things you can do. But the fastest way to feel better, is change what you eat, and your exercise schedule.

Here’s how to reduce your stress load in the fastest way. [Faster than eliminating an aging dog keeping you up at night, or changing jobs even though you’d love to].

Smoothie Recipes and recipes for women over 50

Quick Tips to Decrease Food-Related Stressors:

Eliminate hormone disruptors

  • Plastics don’t belong around your food or water.
  • Check in with your tolerance of soy. For many of my clients it contributed to hot flashes and night sweats and within 3 days of removing it, reduced frequency and intensity of them.
  • Understand the ingredients list on anything you consume that has one. If you don’t have a protein powder with very few ingredients, all of which are pronounceable, switch.

Add foods which will help you remove toxins

  • Boost your fiber intake. You help your body eliminate cholesterol, toxins as they’re released from fat, and excess estrogen (due to estrogen dominance). Try beets. They’re not a magic pill but foods like beets are powerful antioxidants. Fiber shouldn’t look like a powder turned to gel in water, not at least as your first line of defense. Artichokes, sweet potatoes, lima beans, are good food sources of fiber. Add them to pizza and zoodle dishes, to salads and soups. Add chia seeds to your smoothies or make a pudding.
  • Cruciferous veggies like cauliflower, cabbage, and broccoli can help with toxic removal and excess estrogens too.

Start with adequate protein at every meal

  • Protein has a dose-response relationship with muscle for older adults. You want to shoot for a MINIMUM of 30 grams per meal. There’s more to unpack with protein, so much, but for our purpose, you want to consume enough to stop muscle breakdown occurring from cortisol/stress and support your building more muscle at best.
  • If you’re trying to lose weight, you do need to be in a moderate caloric deficit. That said, if you’re sacrificing nutrients to go low on calories, your hormones can’t function properly. It’s important to remember your hormones not your calories determine whether you store or burn fat.

Debra Atkinson

Quick Tips to Mitigate Exercise-Induced Stress:

Reduce your endurance exercise.

At or above 60-75 minutes, cortisol seems to continue to rise rather than having that rise-reduce cortisol effect we want. If you’ve loved going out for those hour-long runs before, you may do better walking, or running 30-45 minutes, or doing short interval training sessions instead. P.S. If you’re stringing together your intervals, your weights and your dog walk… it turns into endurance exercise. So consider alternating days so you have the recovery you need, or at the least, break! Eat! Rest between.

I know from personal experience, as well as from coaching fitness instructors, the most exercise-induced stress occurs from simply doing too much without enough recovery. Within a day, a week, or long term like a month, it all has to be considered. 

Lift weights twice weekly and do total body.

The “split routine” of body builders lets a midlife woman down. First, you’re not getting the metabolism stimulation with muscle group focus that you do with total body. Second, the math doesn’t work out for you in case you’re thinking that doing it 4-5 days a week must be better than two, it’s not true. The metabolism boost is lower each time – it never really gets to the threshold you want, and your recovery ability is less because you’re doing something hard again so soon.(Yes, even if it’s a different muscle group). That can easily add up to a stress hit followed by stress hit. Instead do those tough workouts with 2-3 sets (I like 3-4 regularly) of exercises for all your major muscle groups, then compliment it with a lot of moving through the rest of your days. The total energy expenditure is far greater and the stress damage far less.

If you personally swear by a split routine, just track evidence of change by monitoring your muscle mass and your fat percent. You don’t want to lose, celebrate, and find out later you’ve lost muscle so you gain back fat easier than ever. (See my picks for Smart Scales on my Amazon store so you can do this any day right at home).

Plan your schedule carefully.

Ideally, you’ve got hard days preceded and following easy days. Avoiding exercise-induced stress is determined both by the volume/intensity of exercise AND the quality of your recovery from it. Recovery from exercise includes the careful planning of that dance of hard/easy/moderate. It also includes eating well, timing that eating with exercise, and sleeping & resting well.

Stressful day? Then your workout ideally won’t be the toughest one of your week. Women often just plow through and compartmentalize exercise and workload (or family responsibilities) but that’s not wise. The “allostatic” load of stress comes from all sources. Chronically high levels? Create illness, not athletes.

Who’s Most at Risk for Exercise-Induced Stress?

  • The athletes/exercisers most at risk for cortisol imbalance are endurance exercisers.
  • The phase of lifers most at risk for cortisol imbalance are women pre to post menopause.

Endurance lover in your midlife? It’s tough to juggle that and feel good or avoid weight gain, belly fat or muscle loss during this

That said, entering menopause already prepared to modify your plan for less volume and more quality, or to set aside endurance goals to focus on strength and anaerobic work during this hormone ride, you can probably return to those longer training sessions if you choose.

Who knows? You may like shorter workouts and the way it makes you feel and changes your body.

Questions about stress and its impact on your midlife body? Add them right here or join the Flipping50 Insiders group to interact with our community coaches.

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