I Tried Low-Cortisol Workouts For A Week & My Body Is Grateful

I have more energy, for one.

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I tried low-cortisol workouts for a week and my body is grateful — here's why.

I used to think that my time in the gym wasn’t complete until I was tomato-red and covered in sweat. Bonus points if I had to double over to catch my breath. Usually, extra tough workouts leave me feeling buzzy and accomplished. Recently, though, I’ve noticed that the stress and strain hasn’t been working for me.

Instead of feeling glowy and good after a run or an intense HIIT sesh, I’m tired, burnt out — and it takes me forever to recover. As someone who’s always stressing about something, I had a hunch high cortisol (aka the stress hormone) was to blame — and it seems like I might be onto something.

As if on cue, low-cortisol workouts started to pop up on my TikTok FYP, where the topic has over 27 million views. There were scores of people singing the praises of gentle, low-impact exercises like barre, Pilates, and walking.

While there’s a time and a place for boxing, cycling, or a challenging CrossFit routine, being cortisol-conscious with your workouts is all about listening to your body and, if need be, keeping things low and slow.

According to trainers, this workout trend is especially helpful when you’re dealing with chronic stress, so I knew I had to give it a try.

Keep reading below for more info on stress, low cortisol workouts, and how I felt after trying a less intense fitness routine for a week.

Cortisol Isn’t All Bad

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It’s important to say there’s nothing inherently wrong with cortisol. According to Marc Coronel, a certified fitness trainer with a degree in physiology and kinesiology, cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands, and it plays an important role in countless bodily functions.

When you’re stressed or scared, it’s released into your bloodstream, and it can even help keep you safe. “In acute situations, cortisol aids in the body's fight-or-flight response, preparing it to respond to a stressful event,” he tells Bustle.

Cortisol also helps regulate your immune system, inflammation, blood pressure, and sleep-wake cycle, among other things. It’s normal for your cortisol levels to ebb and flow throughout the day, but they can stay on high alert if you have a sleep disorder, hormonal imbalance, or chronic health conditions, Coronel says.

According to Whitney Berger, a certified yoga instructor, personal trainer, and founder of WhitFit NYC, chronic stress, like the kind experienced in a high-pressure job, can also tax your adrenal glands in a way that leads to feelings of burnout. When that’s the case, Berger says it makes sense to be more mindful about the types of workouts you choose, so you don’t add more stress into the mix.

Signs of high cortisol include fatigue, irritability, insomnia, brain fog, and digestive issues — aka the list of pesky problems that seem to linger or get worse whenever you’re anxious or overwhelmed.

Avoiding Cortisol-Spiking Workouts

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According to Coronel, any type of exercise will spike your cortisol a little, and that’s OK. It’s even beneficial when practiced with moderation and recovery in mind, since cardio, strength, and plyometric workouts all come with a host of benefits. What you’re trying to avoid with low-cortisol workouts are the factors that make sweat sessions more intense, like prolonged intensity, high-impact moves, and short rest periods between sets.

To get started on my low-cortisol fitness journey, I replaced my city-wide jogs with long, winding walks. Power walking is a fave low-cortisol workout on TikTok, thanks to the way it gets your heart rate up while also relieving stress (and being low-impact), but I kept my pace a little slower. It felt good to take a break from pounding the pavement, and I returned home feeling refreshed instead of exhausted.

According to Ronny Garcia, CPT, a certified personal trainer with Blink Fitness, steady-state aerobic exercises — like walking, gentle cycling, and swimming — are still good cardio, and they also release endorphins that actually help to reduce stress and improve your mood.

Next, I skipped my favorite boxing class and stayed home to try an online Pilates workout instead. Mat Pilates, according to Berger, is always a good go-to when you’re looking for a low-cortisol option. The moves burn out your muscles so you feel strong and powerful, she says, but they don’t majorly spike your heart rate or your cortisol. Pilates also encourages you to focus on your breath, Garcia adds, which further calms you down.

After a boxing class, I tend to walk home on wobbly legs. Pilates, while tiring, wasn’t nearly as exhausting. I was even able to meet up with friends afterward, whereas normally I’d want to take a nap.

Several days of low-cortisol workouts later, I noticed that I’ve been sleeping more deeply, and here’s why: Elevated cortisol levels can interfere with the body's natural sleep-wake cycle and potentially lead to difficulty falling or staying asleep, Coronel says. Without the added stress, I no longer had to guzzle Sleepy Time tea just to catch a few winks.

The Takeaway


Not everyone is bothered by intense workouts. According to Coronel, everyone’s unique when it comes to how they react to exercise, and it seems like I just happen to be someone who’s more sensitive to the effects of cortisol.

Other factors like overall fitness level, nutrition, sleep quality, and stress management can also play into how your body responds to workouts, says Coronel, and it can change as you age or make tweaks to your lifestyle.

Personally, I’m glad that I’m taking a little break from HIIT, running, and boxing. As Coronel says, low cortisol workouts are all about listening to your body and finding activities you enjoy and benefit from, and that’s exactly what I’m doing. While I’ll get back to my runs in the future, you can catch me on a Pilates mat for now.

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Marc Coronel, certified fitness trainer

Whitney Berger, certified yoga instructor, personal trainer, founder of WhitFit NYC

Ronny Garcia, CPT, certified personal trainer with Blink Fitness

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