Physical activity is essential to maintaining health. But is it still beneficial for those with adrenal fatigue?
Our HPA axis evolved when we were hunter-gatherers. It is well equipped to deal with bear encounters and other short-lived stresses. Unfortunately, the long-term stress that is ubiquitous in modern society presents a large challenge to our body’s stress response system.
The body’s stress system functions the same whether there is a bear in front of you or your bank account is in the red. Stress is stress regardless of its source. In modern society, the stress is often perceived (there is no physical threat). In these instances, your body does not require the freeing of stored energy reserves. Our body frees stored energy in the form of sugar by releasing the adrenaline hormone. (1) This excess of sugar in our blood provides fuel for our muscles to fight or flight.
Unfortunately, when there is not a physical stress, the freeing of stored sugars can have a negative effect. This occurs in cases of obesity or insulin resistance. Often, these modern day stressors are long-term and to do not go into remission. Contrast this with our stress response system that has adapted to intense, short-lived stress and you have a mismatch in terms of the stress and how our body is designed to respond to it.
How can exercise help with adrenal fatigue?
Exercise recreates a stress response that our body has adapted to deal with – short duration and requiring energy mobilization. It perfectly mimics a flight or flight response. Similar to encountering a bear in our hunter-gatherer days; though not nearly to the same intensity.
By creating a short-term stress (that requires the usage of energy), exercise can help to build the metabolic reserve of the stress response system. Assuming you exercise within your tolerance zone, the allostatic load placed upon your body is manageable. This has been found to have beneficial effects for those with adrenal fatigue.
The “cross-stressor adaptation hypothesis” suggests that repeated exercise results in adaptations in the HPA axis. This adaptation acts as a buffer for when other stressors enter our system. (2, 3) Said another way, exercise strengthens our body’s stress-response system so that we’re better able to handle other stressors.
Research has shown that those who partake in regular exercise have lower levels of anxiety, depression, and perceived stress. The paradox occurs when high levels of perceived stress create a lack of motivation or energy. This energy and motivation deficit can lead to us avoiding exercise. Which, in turn, will create higher levels of stress. This leads to a self-perpetuating cycle. (4, 5)
In order to break this cycle, one needs to create an exercise regimen that does not feel overwhelming nor taxing on the mind and body.
What type of exercise is best for those with adrenal fatigue?
If you remember from my previous post, two of the most common root causes of adrenal fatigue are blood sugar imbalance and inflammation. Regular, moderate physical activity helps to regulate blood sugar levels. (6) Regular exercise also reduces inflammatory signals. (7)
In one study, 30 minutes of aerobic exercise (running) was shown to stop the cortisol response to a subsequent psychosocial stress. (8) 30 minutes of moderate exercise creates enough of a buffer in the body that the stress system does not get activated when a new stress arrives. (9)
The intensity level at which one exercises is of paramount importance for those with adrenal fatigue. Extreme or intense physical exercise will often strongly deplete the body’s resilience to stress. In effect, these intense exercise regimens suppress the body’s immune system.
Exercise regimens that require moderate to extreme amounts of physical exertion will increase cortisol levels. With moderate intensity exercise, cortisol will generally stay elevated for several hours after exercise has concluded. Under extreme amounts of physical exertion (think, running a marathon), cortisol levels will rise to incredibly high levels. This can lead to a decrease in the functioning of your immune system and a decrease in your body’s ability to cope with stress. (10)
Overall, those diagnosed with adrenal fatigue should refrain from partaking in intense bouts of exercise. High-intensity fitness programs will tend to exacerbate the symptoms of adrenal fatigue. It will also lengthen the amount of time required to recover.
What exactly is moderate intensity exercise?
The CDC makes the following recommendations in order to better understand and measure the intensity of your workouts. For those of you diagnosed with adrenal fatigue, please keep your activity level within moderate ranges. (11)
When using relative intensity, people pay attention to how physical activity affects their heart rate and breathing.
The talk test is a simple way to measure relative intensity. In general, if you’re doing a moderate-intensity activity you can talk, but not sing, during the activity. If you’re doing a vigorous-intensity activity, you will not be able to say more than a few words without pausing for a breath.
The amount of energy used by the body per minute of activity. The table below lists examples of activities classified as moderate-intensity or vigorous-intensity based upon the amount of energy used by the body while doing the activity. (12)
Examples of moderate intensity activity:
- Walking briskly (3 miles per hour or faster, but not race-walking)
- Water aerobics
- Bicycling slower than 10 miles per hour
- Tennis (doubles)
- Ballroom dancing
- General gardening
- Moderate weight lifting (with 2-3 minute breaks between sets)
Examples of vigorous activity:
- Race walking, jogging, or running
- Swimming laps
- Tennis (singles)
- Aerobic dancing
- Heavy weight training (anything above 80% of your 1 rep max)
- Bicycling 10 miles per hour or faster
- Jumping rope
- Heavy gardening (continuous digging or hoeing)
- Hiking uphill or with a heavy backpack
Another way to gauge the intensity of activity is through the heart rate. The CDC also has guidelines to follow in order to ensure that your exercise falls within moderate limits. (13)
For moderate-intensity physical activity, a person’s target heart rate should be 50 to 70% of his or her maximum heart rate. This maximum rate is based on the person’s age. An estimate of a person’s maximum age-related heart rate can be obtained by subtracting the person’s age from 220. For example, for a 50-year-old person, the estimated maximum age-related heart rate would be calculated as 220 – 50 years = 170 beats per minute (bpm). The 50% and 70% levels would be:
- 50% level: 170 x 0.50 = 85 bpm
- 70% level: 170 x 0.70 = 119 bpm
Thus, moderate-intensity physical activity for a 50-year-old person will require that the heart rate remains between 85 and 119 bpm during physical activity.
For vigorous-intensity physical activity, a person’s target heart rate should be 70 to 85% of his or her maximum heart rate. To calculate this range, follow the same formula as used above, except change “50 and 70%” to “70 and 85%”. For example, for a 35-year-old person, the estimated maximum age-related heart rate would be calculated as 220 – 35 years = 185 beats per minute (bpm). The 70% and 85% levels would be:
- 70% level: 185 x 0.70 = 130 bpm
- 85% level: 185 x 0.85 = 157 bpm
Thus, vigorous-intensity physical activity for a 35-year-old person will require that the heart rate remains between 130 and 157 bpm during physical activity.
How much exercise is too much?
Outside of testing cortisol levels before and after exercise, there is not a simple metric to follow. Testing at that frequency becomes costly and time-consuming. Instead, we recommend noting the amount of time required for you to fully recover from your workout.
For the general public, if the recovery time from a workout is greater than three hours, the intensity needs to be decreased. Additionally, there should be no decrease in overall energy levels following the workout. If symptoms of fatigue, frequent colds, and consistently feeling rundown occur, the intensity and frequency of the workouts need to be altered.
For highly trained athletes looking to keep their HPA axis balanced, using immune-supporting nutrients is recommended. This will prevent a drop in immune system functioning. For more detail on the best supplements for adrenal fatigue, please see this post.
What are the symptoms of too much exercise?
- Persistent muscle soreness
- Elevated resting heart rate
- Increase in a number of colds/flu you catch
- Increase in the number of training injuries
- Elevated resting heart rate
- Decreased performance
- Slowed recovery
- Inability to complete workouts
- Low appetite
Should you notice any of the above symptoms, it is recommended to begin decreasing your exercise intensity. Begin by decreasing the intensity of the workout itself. If that change does not result in a decrease in symptoms, decrease the number of days you exercise until your symptoms are no longer apparent.
Exercising while recovering from adrenal fatigue is a delicate balance. We strongly recommend regular exercise as it has been shown to assist common symptoms of adrenal fatigue. However, the exercise needs to be slowly introduced and the intensity level slowly increased.
Ok, now you have all the information required to ensure your workout does not interfere with overcoming adrenal fatigue.
Now, I want to hear from you!
What exercise programs have you followed while recovering from adrenal fatigue?
Also published on Medium.