Exercise is essential for staying healthy. This much you know.
But should you exercise if you are dealing with adrenal fatigue?
Adrenal fatigue is a condition resulting in an imbalanced HPA axis. Your HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis evolved when your ancestors were hunter-gatherers. It is well equipped to deal with bear encounters, tribal warfare, and other short-lived stresses. Unfortunately, the long-term stresses of modern society challenge our body’s stress response system.
Your 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. And that presents quite the challenge in managing modern day life!
Adrenal fatigue – a 21st-century syndrome
In modern society, what we call stress is what is known as perceived stress. With perceived stress, there is no physical threat but your brain still interprets the situation as stressful – like when you see an overdrawn balance in your bank statement!
When you are under stress your body frees stored energy. It releases the adrenaline hormone which frees energy it has stored in the form of sugar.(1) This extra sugar in your blood provides fuel for your muscles to respond with either a fight or flight response.
If the stress is caused by a bear encounter, suddenly having more energy is incredibly helpful. It allows you to run longer and faster. In all likelihood, your body’s stress response system would save your life!
But that same process of freeing stored energy doesn’t really help if your bank account is overdrawn. You don’t need to mobilize energy for a fight or flight reaction based on your bank statement. But your body only knows stress as stress, regardless of whether it’s from a bear or a negative bank balance.
The downside of the fight or flight reaction
Unfortunately, when there is no physical stress, releasing stored sugars into the blood stream can have a negative effect. This occurs in cases of obesity or blood sugar imbalances like diabetes and/or hypoglycemia.
Modern day stressors like blood sugar imbalances are long term and do not go into remission. Contrast this with your 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.
Blood sugar imbalances are the #1 cause of adrenal fatigue I see in my practice.
If your adrenal fatigue doesn’t seem to get better – no matter what you do – check out my free eCourse, Stop Feeding Fatigue. I’ll show you how to identify and overcome the root cause of your adrenal fatigue today!
This is why you can’t seem to improve your adrenal fatigue! Now, let’s get into how exercise affects adrenal fatigue.
Does exercise help adrenal fatigue?
Exercise creates a stress response that your body has already adapted to deal with. Namely, a short stress that requires instant energy mobilization. It perfectly mimics a flight or flight response, similar to encountering a bear in your hunter-gatherer days – though not nearly to the same intensity.
Think about your body like a bank account. When you make a healthy deposit your balance grows. When you undergo stress, you make a withdrawal.
By creating a short term stress that requires the quick use of energy, exercise is a healthy deposit into your bank account. Assuming you exercise within your tolerance zone, the stress placed upon your body is manageable and beneficial for those with adrenal fatigue.
Read more about your body’s ‘bank account’ in this post explaining the causes of adrenal fatigue.
Research has shown that those who exercise regularly have lower levels of anxiety, depression, and perceived stress.
Exercise strengthens your body’s stress-response system so that you’re better able to handle other stressors. (2, 3)
However, when you experience more perceived stress it can create a lack of motivation or energy, which ironically can make you want to avoid exercise. Which, in turn, will create higher levels of stress.
In order to break this cycle, you need to create an exercise regimen that does not feel overwhelming or taxing on your mind or body.
What type of exercise is best for those with adrenal fatigue?
Two of the most common root causes of adrenal fatigue are blood sugar imbalances and inflammation. Regular, moderate physical activity helps to regulate blood sugar levels (6) and reduces inflammatory signals. (7)
But sometimes exercise is not enough to regulate your blood sugar and improve your adrenal fatigue. Sometimes, you need to learn exactly which foods are affecting your blood sugar, which I should you how to do in my eCourse, Stop Feeding Fatigue.
In one study, 30 minutes of moderate exercise was shown to create enough of a buffer in your body so that your stress system was not activated when a new stress arrived. (8)
How cool is that?!
Exercise programs that require moderate to extreme amounts of physical exertion will increase cortisol levels, and they will generally stay elevated for several hours after you’ve finished working out.
However, the same isn’t true if you up the intensity level of your exercise. Instead of creating more of a buffer to stress, extreme or intense physical exercise will instead deplete and even suppress your body’s resilience.
Under extreme amounts of physical exertion, like 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 your body’s ability to cope with stress. (9)
The general rule I use for my patients diagnosed with adrenal fatigue is to refrain from intense bouts of exercise. High intensity fitness programs tend to make adrenal fatigue worse as well as lengthen the amount of time required to recover.
What exactly is moderate intensity exercise?
To better understand and measure the intensity of your workouts, I recommend my adrenal fatigue patients follow the CDC guidelines.
When exercising, pay attention to how physical activity affects your heart rate and your breathing rate.
In general, if you’re doing a moderate intensity activity you should be able to talk, but not sing, during the activity.
If you’re doing vigorous intensity activity, you will not be able to say more than a few words without pausing for a breath.
Keep your exercise in the talking but not singing range.
Some examples of moderate intensity exercises are:
- 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
Are you exercising too intensely?
Another way to gauge the intensity of your workout is via your heart rate. The CDC also has guidelines to follow in order to ensure that your exercise falls within moderate limits.
For moderate-intensity physical activity, your target heart rate should be 50% to 70% of your maximum heart rate.
To figure out your own maximum heart rate, subtract your 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
Therefore, the heart rate of a 50-year-old person should remain between 85 and 119bpm during a moderate intensity workout.
For vigorous-intensity physical activity, the 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, but substitute 70% and 85%. 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 70% and 85% levels would be:
- 70% level: 170 x 0.70 = 119 bpm
- 85% level: 170 x 0.85 = 145 bpm
The heart rate of a 50-year-old person doing vigorous intensity physical activity should remain between 119 and 145 bpm.
How much exercise is too much?
Outside of testing cortisol levels before and after exercise (which is costly and time-consuming), there isn’t a simple metric to follow. Instead, I recommend noting the amount of time required for you to fully recover from your workout.
For those of you dealing with adrenal fatigue, if your recovery time from a workout is greater than three hours, you need to decrease the intensity. Additionally, there should be no decrease in your overall energy levels following the workout. If symptoms of fatigue, frequent colds, and consistently feeling rundown occur, you need to reduce the intensity and frequency of your workouts.
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. Read more about the best supplements for adrenal fatigue.
Is your exercise program making your adrenal fatigue worse?
- 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
If you notice any of these symptoms you need to decrease your exercise intensity. Begin by reducing the intensity of the workout itself. Then, if that change does not result in a decrease in symptoms, reduce the number of days you exercise until your symptoms are no longer apparent.
Remember, you need to completely recover from your exercise within three hours! Otherwise, your exercise program is making your adrenal fatigue worse!
Exercising while recovering from adrenal fatigue is a delicate balance. I 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.
In addition to exercise, to overcome adrenal fatigue, you need to get your nutrition sorted. If you’re eating foods that cause negative swings in your blood sugar, no amount of exercise is going to help. Let me show you how to identify exactly which foods contribute to your adrenal fatigue!
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?
How did you ensure you weren’t overtraining?
Leave your answers in the comments section below!