Exercise is touted as the most beneficial way to maintain your so called “optimal health status”. But what if that’s not always the case. After 2 years of working out 6 days a week and making my body sweat through multiple HIIT & cycle classes in addition to strength training, I found myself in a tough spot. Many of you know I’m working to heal my body from SIBO, but for the last 2 years my digestion has been a wreck and even though I was eating healthy, my body wasn’t absorbing nutrients as a result. I even have the blood test results to prove it. Not to mention, I’ve dealt with digestive issues my entire child & adulthood. After seeing doc after doc, being told to eat more greens (impossible), trying an elimination diet, and finally undergoing yet another colonoscopy…NOTHING helped. About a year ago my PT and doctor told me to take a break from exercise, but I ignored it. Then I visited the chiropractor a few weeks ago who confirmed their advice. My muscles weren’t responding correctly to stimuli (aka muscle fatigue), and I knew how exhausted my muscles felt during workouts. Plus I wasn’t losing belly fat or getting shredded from my 1-2 hours of PA everyday, so what better time for a break than now? I stopped exercising and treated my body to walks and restorative yoga. I began feeling better after a few days. How did I know? My digestion was getting better. I started feeling lighter with a lot less bloat. Wait…isn’t that counter intuitive? Well, yeah exercise is great, unless you’re over doing it or your body is under too much stress to handle all those HIIT workouts.
Oddly enough, exercise is a type of physical stress in and of itself. We all know this due to the fact that running a marathon isn’t for the faint of heart. While it can also alleviate stress, too much of a good thing can actually be a bad thing (despite the song). Yes, exercise can help level out hormones and cortisol, but too much exercise can create excess levels of cortisol. One study supported that moderate & high intensity exercise increased the amount of cortisol flowing through the body, while low intensity exercise yielded a reduced amount of cortisol levels. (1)
I’m not saying this to get you to stop HIIT or whatever. I personally love HIIT and feel like a total badass after finishing one of those workouts. All I’m saying is maybe take a step back and be honest with your body and the way you feel. I didn’t want to admit I was overtraining. I mean don’t olympians & professional athletes train longer than I do? I need to stop comparing. For months, I fought against my fatigued muscles and lack of physical response to the exercises I was doing. I kept pushing through no matter what with hopes it would eventually all workout (no pun intended). Did I gain some muscle? Absolutely. But my body was also storing fat in random areas where I was trying to lose weight. Why? Basically, my cortisol levels have been on the high side due to multiple 1 hr.+ strength and HIIT workouts occurring about 4-5 days a week and the stress that comes with healing digestion. A distressed body=a distressed gut and vice versa, at least in my case.
The other day, I got to thinking and it finally hit me. My digestion always seemed to be better & slower when I traveled. The common denominator between travel and my 2 week exercise break? No exercise. Usually when I travel, I walk for exercise instead of hitting the gym every day. It only took 2 years to figure this out, why? Because I never took a break from exercise to find out.
Some quick info:
- Signs of high cortisol: abdominal weight gain (fat storing), low sex drive, mood swings, break outs, irregular periods, muscle aches and pains, increased urination etc (3) (4). Does that sound familiar? It totally does to me.
- Causes of high cortisol? Over-exercising, nutrient deficiencies, high estrogen levels, hyperthyroidism, obesity, etc. (3) (5). Also familiar.
- High levels of cortisol, especially over a long period of time can have a negative impact on your body. Research conducted by the Genetics Learning Science Center, shows that long-term high cortisol activates the fight or flight response, which temporarily shuts down normal reproductive, digestive and immune functions (6).
5 things I’ve learned:
- Exercise does not define you. If I don’t hit the gym every day, I am not “less than”. Honoring your body looks different for everyone and it’s time we (especially me) understood that.
- Weight gain myth. Yes, exercise can help you lose weight. But you can also lose weight by switching to lower intensity exercise such as walking, especially if you have high cortisol like I do. There’s a time and season for everything. I truly can’t wait to get back to my higher intensity workouts (and don’t worry, I’ll definitely be scaling back), but it’s so important to enjoy the season I’m in and learn as much as I can while I’m in it.
- Get to know, understand, and listen your body. How does it respond to different exercises, foods, and life stressors. What are ways you cope? I’ve been doing a little more self-care than usual over the past several weeks. Visits to a sports massage therapist, chiropractor, and taking my pups on extra long walks. Turns out walking truly is a good form of exercise.
- I’m capable of anything. If you’re one of those, like me, who thinks it’s the end of the world to take a break, then you may be the very one that needs to give it a try. Treating my body gently has been rewarding and a huge learning curve for me. It’s taught me that breaks aren’t always a bad thing and there’s no need to beat myself up when I decide to take one. Instead shift the perspective and learn to appreciate what our bodies are capable of. Just like our brains need an occasional study break, it also needs a break from a rigorous exercise schedule.
- My body has gone through a lot over the last few years (digestive issues, frequent uti’s, hormone imbalance) and my entire system is THANKING me for this break.
- Hill EE, Zack E, Battaglini C, Viru M, Viru A, Hackney AC. Exercise and circulating cortisol levels: the intensity threshold effect. J Endocrinol Invest (2008) 31(7):587–91.10.1007/BF03345606 [PubMed][Cross Ref]
Hewagalamulage, S.D., Lee, T.K., Clarke, I.J., and Henry, B.A. 2016. Stress, cortisol, and obesity: a role for cortisol responsiveness in identifying individuals prone to obesity. Domest. Anim. Endocrinol. 56:(Suppl): S112–S120. [Medline] [CrossRef]
- Axe, J., Dr. (2016). Get Your Cortisol Levels Under Control & Turn Down the Stress. Retrieved September 26, 2017, from https://draxe.com/cortisol-levels/
- Axe, J., Dr. (2015). Is Less More When Exercising? 8 Risks of Overtraining. Retrieved from https://draxe.com/overtraining/
- University of Utah: Genetic Science Learning Center (Ed.). (n.d.). How Cells Communicate During Fight or Flight. Retrieved from http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/cells/fight_flight/