In a world marked by uncertainty and instability, our society has become increasingly aware of the role that stress plays in our daily lives. As “self-care” becomes a part of our lexicon and soothing face masks fly off convenience store shelves, it seems only right that “cortisol-conscious” workouts would emerge as the latest trend in fitness.
Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands that responds to stress or danger by increasing your body’s metabolism of glucose.
“The role of cortisol acutely is to activate a fight or flight concept,” said Tudor Vrinceanu, a PhD candidate in the Department of Medicine at the University of Montreal who studies cortisol, exercise and aging. “When you exercise, if it’s intense enough, you release cortisol to direct the resources your body needs.”
Recently, though, trendy trainers and studios point to other impacts of the hormone. For example, cortisol temporarily hits pause on some bodily functions, including the immune system and bone formation. Studies have also linked high levels of cortisol production to increased abdominal fat (evolutionarily, visceral fat protects the organs, which is useful in stressful situations).
Enter “cortisol-conscious” workouts. The workouts claim to burn up to 1,000 calories per class through high-intensity, low-impact interval training — think more rowing machines and stretchy resistance-bands, fewer burpees and deadlifts.
A number of popular health and fitness blogs and publications have named cortisol-conscious workouts the hot exercise trend for the new decade. Gyms centered around cortisol-consciousness, like P.Volve and LIT Method, have cropped up in the epicenter of trendy health and fitness: Los Angeles. As with hot yoga and CrossFit before it, cortisol-conscious workouts could soon find their way to Maine.
But what does science say about this new trend in workouts?
Vrinceanu said that the body produces cortisol throughout the day at fluctuating levels. Regular exercise helps you to better manage those fluctuations so you are less stressed.
“There have been studies that show that cortisol released from exercise might be beneficial,” Vrinceanu said. “The more you work out, the level at which the cortisol is released [increases], and you have to work out even harder to get to the threshold.”
But what about that belly fat? Vrinceanu said that many of these studies that link cortisol to fat storage focus on chronic stress producing consistently high cortisol levels, which is not the same as the burst of cortisol produced by exercise.
Exercising with an eye towards stress is not necessarily a bad thing for certain competitive athletes, though.
“There’s a lot of work done in endurance athletes that compete in competitive levels,” Vrinceanu said. “When they do intense exercise, even at rest, they have higher cortisol levels that may delay recovery. For the average person that’s working out, I don’t think it will make a huge difference.”
The trending popularity of low-intensity cortisol-conscious workouts might be a response to the prevalence of high-intensity workouts, like CrossFit. Adam Swartzendruber, assistant professor in the Department of Sport and Exercise Science at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine, said that these gyms have a high rate of injury not because of cortisol, but because of beginners attempting high-impact workouts that their bodies aren’t ready for.
“It sounds to me that [gyms promoting cortisol-conscious workouts] are just giving another name to workouts that will help [people] be more fit without overtraining them,” he said. “It’s already something trainers should be doing in the first place. The studios that are advertising cortisol conscious workouts aren’t necessarily lying. It’s just not the whole picture. Cortisol is not the problem.”
Vrinceanu recommended mixing it up when it comes to your exercise regimen.
“Different kinds of training have different benefits,” Vrinceanu said. “If you do intense exercise, you get a lot of cardiovascular benefits that you wouldn’t get from a softer exercise training, but at the same time, those other exercises give you other benefits. Dance has benefits on chronic levels of cortisol that aerobic exercise doesn’t seem to have. It’s best to combine all different types of exercise in a training routine.”