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  • Rebecca Washuta

HIIT Workouts vs. Cortisol Conscious Workouts




What is high intensity interval training (HIIT) anyway?

These types of workouts are designed as short bursts of activity that raise your heart rate. While high intensity workouts can help burn fat efficiently, studies have shown that there may be harmful side effects due to increases in cortisol.


What is Cortisol?

Cortisol is a stress hormone that plays an important role in your body. It regulates the physiological responses in fight or flight situations by turning off nonessential functions, increasing sugar levels in the bloodstream, and altering the immune and digestive system. High intensity workouts raise cortisol levels, which is normal, but doing these workouts too often can have negative impacts on weight loss, sleep, and immune function.


How Stress Plays a Role

These potential health problems are especially relevant for those who struggle with chronic stress. The stress of our daily lives coupled with frequent HIIT workouts can be a bad combination for our cortisol levels. Elevated levels of cortisol can lead to high levels of blood sugar, weight gain, anxiety, depression, sleep disturbances, and heart problems.

Being conscious of how your workouts affect your cortisol levels, will help you feel your best and reach your goals. I recommend no more than 2-3 HIIT workouts per week, and skipping them all together if you’re already feeling stressed. Time of the day is an important factor too. Cortisol levels are usually highest in the morning and gradually decrease throughout the day, so doing high intensity workouts in the morning will result in a less dramatic increase and give your body more time to adjust hormone levels.


Cortisol Conscious Workouts

Balancing your workouts and focusing on low intensity workouts instead can have lasting benefits. These workouts still increase heart rate and muscle strength but can be easier on the joints and improve balance and stability. Additionally, they reduce stress markers such as cortisol, c-reactive protein, blood pressure, heart rate, and triglycerides. Low intensity workouts, also called cortisol conscious workouts, include walking, yoga, pilates, jogging, and swimming.


What the Science Says

Studies have shown that yoga can improve cardiovascular health and cortisol levels due to its focus on mindfulness. Those who completed 8 weeks of yoga had lower cortisol levels as well as lower self-reported levels of anxiety and stress before and after completing tasks that measured cognitive function. The lower levels of stress were correlated with performing well in memory tasks, while those who didn’t do yoga sessions had elevated cortisol levels that led to poor performance. Doing just one session of hatha yoga can have similar benefits. In another study, participants who had one yoga session had faster recovery from elevated blood pressure, decreased cortisol levels, and higher self confidence which led to better performance of a stress task. Faster recovery from post stress blood pressure is associated with improved cardiovascular health while stress and self-confidence predict performance of cognitive tasks. These studies show that the focus on attention and mindfulness in yoga can help reduce cortisol levels and contribute to an overall feeling of well-being. Give cortisol conscious workouts a try, and you may feel more energized while reaping the benefits of exercise.