Why Killing Yourself in the Gym Could Be Doing more Harm Than Good

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Why Killing Yourself in the Gym Could Be Doing more Harm Than Good

Discover the 10 telltale signs of high cortisol levels and learn how to naturally balance them for better health and well-being.

A woman with high cortisol levels is exhausted from overworking herself in the gym

If you’ve been diligent about your fitness routine, mindful of your diet, and feel like you're doing everything right, yet you cannot lose weight whatsoever…

Or perhaps sleep is a constant frustration, with the struggle to fall asleep or those 3 AM awakenings becoming too frequent… 

Or maybe your digestive system seems to have a mind of its own, subjecting you to discomfort, bloating, and even stomach cramps that leave you constantly questioning your health.

… high cortisol levels might be the hidden culprit behind your symptoms.

Living with elevated cortisol levels can feel like an unending battle against your own body and mind. Despite doing “all the right things,” you often feel stuck, exhausted, and like you don’t have control over your health.

In this article, we're talking about all things cortisol: 

  • what it is
  • how too much is a bad thing
  • the telltale signs you might have excess levels 
  • how you should and should NOT be exercising
  • the foods to eat
  • low-cortisol lifestyle tips

Whether you’re just noticing you may have a cortisol issue, or you’ve been working towards lowering your levels for a while, we hope this article helps shine some light on areas in which you can make some healthy adjustments.

What is Cortisol, Anyway?

When you're under stress, your body produces a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol increases the amount of glucose in your bloodstream to help fuel your body in the event of a “fight or flight” situation. 

Cortisol also suppresses insulin production, which prevents cells from getting the nutrients they need. This triggers hunger signals to be sent to your brain which can lead to hunger, overeating, and weight gain.

10 Signs You Have High Cortisol

1. Weight Gain

High cortisol levels can contribute to weight gain, particularly around the abdominal area. This phenomenon is often referred to as “stress belly” or “cortisol belly.” When cortisol levels are consistently elevated, it can lead to an increase in appetite and cravings for high-calorie, comfort foods. 

Cortisol can also promote the storage of fat, especially visceral fat, which is the fat that accumulates around the organs in the abdominal cavity. This type of fat is associated with an increased risk of various health conditions, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

2. Trouble Sleeping

Elevated cortisol levels can disrupt the body's natural sleep-wake cycle, making it difficult to fall asleep, stay asleep, or experience restful sleep. Cortisol follows a daily rhythm, typically peaking in the early morning to help wake you up and gradually decreasing throughout the day. 

However, chronic stress or irregular cortisol patterns can lead to elevated cortisol levels at night, interfering with the production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep. This disruption in cortisol and melatonin can result in insomnia and poor sleep quality.

An old woman struggling with anxiety and depression from high cortisol

3. Anxiety & Depression

High levels of chronic stress and elevated cortisol have been linked to increased feelings of anxiety and depression. Cortisol plays a role in the body's “fight or flight” response to stress. 

Prolonged activation of this response can lead to imbalances in neurotransmitters and contribute to mood disorders. Additionally, high cortisol levels can impact the function of the hippocampus, a region of the brain associated with regulating emotions and memory.

4. High Blood Pressure

Cortisol can affect blood pressure regulation through its interactions with the cardiovascular system. It can lead to vasoconstriction (narrowing of blood vessels) and an increase in heart rate, both of which contribute to elevated blood pressure. 

Prolonged exposure to high cortisol levels can contribute to hypertension (high blood pressure), which is a risk factor for heart disease and other cardiovascular complications.

5. Impaired Immune Function

Excessive cortisol can suppress the immune system's activity. While cortisol is an important part of the body's response to inflammation and stress, chronic elevation can weaken the immune system's ability to fight off infections and illnesses. 

This can lead to a higher susceptibility to common infections and slower recovery from illnesses.

6. Digestive Issues

Elevated cortisol levels can impact the digestive system in multiple ways. Stress and cortisol can lead to decreased blood flow to the digestive organs, which can contribute to issues such as indigestion, bloating, and discomfort. 

Chronic stress can also disrupt the balance of gut bacteria, potentially exacerbating digestive problems. Conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can be triggered or worsened by chronic stress and high cortisol levels.

Older woman dealing with brain fog and cognitive changes from high cortisol

7. Cognitive Changes

Chronic stress and elevated cortisol have been associated with impaired memory, decreased attention span, brain fog, and difficulties with decision-making. Many women will experience a version of this when they have children. It's commonly referred to as either “pregnancy brain” or “mom brain.”

Cortisol can impact the hippocampus, a brain region important for memory formation and cognitive function, leading to changes in neural connectivity.

8. Muscle Weakness

Cortisol is involved in breaking down muscle tissue, a process known as catabolism. While this is a normal part of the body's response to stress, chronic elevation of cortisol can lead to excessive muscle breakdown, contributing to muscle weakness and a decrease in muscle mass. 

This effect can be particularly relevant for individuals who engage in intense and prolonged exercise without adequate recovery.

9. Skin Problems

High cortisol levels can lead to increased oil production in the skin, contributing to acne. Additionally, cortisol can impair collagen production, leading to thinning of the skin and delayed wound healing. This can make the skin more susceptible to damage and slower to recover from injuries.

10. Menstrual Irregularities

Too much cortisol can disrupt the delicate balance of hormones in the body, potentially affecting the menstrual cycle in women. Irregular periods, missed periods, or even amenorrhea (absence of periods) can occur as a result of hormonal imbalances caused by chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels.

The most accurate way to diagnose cortisol-related issues is through laboratory testing, which measures cortisol levels in the blood, urine, or saliva at different times of the day to assess the body's natural cortisol rhythm. This can help determine if there is an abnormal pattern of cortisol secretion.

Kiss CrossFit & Bootcamps Goodbye

Intense and prolonged exercise can lead to a significant release of cortisol. While cortisol is a normal part of the body's stress response, chronically elevated levels can have negative health effects. 

These types of exercises are activities that involve a high level of physical effort, often pushing the body to its limits and causing a substantial increase in heart rate, respiration rate, and overall stress on various systems. 

These exercises typically require a significant amount of energy and can be challenging to sustain for extended periods. 

Here are some examples of intense and prolonged exercises: 

  • High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
  • CrossFit,
  • Long-distance running
  • High-intensity cycling/Spin
  • Boot camps
  • Martial arts training 

While these types of exercise can offer great benefits for cardiovascular fitness, strength, and overall health, they can further elevate cortisol levels due to the additional stress they place on the body. 

Intense, yet brief exercise sessions should be incorporated into a well-rounded fitness routine that includes lower-intensity activities and proper recovery strategies to prevent overtraining and excessive stress on the body.

A woman who is fit and healthy from slow motion strength training that helps combat hight cortisol levels

Go Low-Impact

Low-impact workouts are less likely to trigger excessive cortisol release and can actually help reduce stress and promote relaxation. This is important because chronically elevated cortisol levels are often associated with chronic stress, and incorporating low-impact activities can contribute to a more balanced stress response.

Some low impact exercises include:

These exercises are gentler on the joints and muscles, reducing the risk of further stress to an already stressed body. This can support the healing process and overall well-being.

As a cherry on top, low-impact exercises like walking, yoga, or slow strength training can have a positive impact on mood. They promote the release of endorphins, which are natural mood lifters, and can help counteract some of the negative emotional effects associated with high cortisol levels.

The Best of Both Exercise Worlds

Slow-motion strength training truly combines the best of both worlds in the case of controlling cortisol. Although it's intense, it's incredibly brief and low-impact. When incorporated correctly, it requires significantly more rest time than time spent working out.

The recommended routine is two, 20-minute slow-motion strength training workouts a week with 2-3 days of rest in between. During the rest time, you can still engage in low-intensity, low-impact activities like walking and yoga. 

A plate of healthy food that helps lower cortisol levels

Foods that lower cortisol

Certain foods and dietary habits can help support healthy cortisol levels and manage stress. While there are no specific foods that directly “lower” cortisol, incorporating a balanced and nutritious diet can help modulate the body's stress response. 

Here are some foods and dietary strategies that may help:

  • Complex Carbohydrates: Foods like whole grains (oats, quinoa, brown rice), legumes (beans, lentils), and starchy vegetables (sweet potatoes) can help stabilize blood sugar levels. This can prevent spikes and crashes in blood sugar, which can trigger cortisol release.
  • Fruits and Vegetables: A diet rich in fruits and vegetables provides essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that support overall health. Antioxidants, in particular, can help combat oxidative stress caused by high cortisol levels.
  • Protein: Including lean sources of protein in your diet, such as poultry, fish, lean beef, tofu, and legumes, can help stabilize blood sugar levels and provide a steady source of energy.
  • Fatty Fish: Fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties and may help reduce the negative effects of chronic stress.
  • Nuts and Seeds: Almonds, walnuts, flaxseeds, and chia seeds are good sources of healthy fats, fiber, and magnesium, which can support stress management.
  • Herbal Teas: Chamomile tea and green tea are known for their calming properties and may help reduce stress and anxiety.
  • Dark Chocolate: Yes! In moderation, dark chocolate with a high cocoa content (70% or higher) can have stress-reducing effects. It contains antioxidants and compounds that promote relaxation.
  • Probiotic-Rich Foods: Foods like yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut contain probiotics that support gut health. There is a growing body of research suggesting a strong connection between gut health and stress response.
  • Water: Staying hydrated is crucial for overall health and can help regulate bodily functions, including cortisol release. Dehydration can contribute to stress, so drinking enough water is essential.
  • Limit Caffeine and Alcohol: Excessive caffeine and alcohol consumption can disrupt sleep patterns and exacerbate stress. Moderation is key.
  • Balanced Meals: Eating regular, balanced meals and avoiding extreme calorie restriction can help prevent blood sugar fluctuations that trigger cortisol release.
  • Magnesium-Rich Foods: Magnesium is involved in stress regulation, and magnesium-rich foods like leafy greens, nuts, and seeds can support healthy stress management.
  • B Vitamins: Foods rich in B vitamins, such as whole grains, leafy greens, and lean meats, can help support the nervous system and energy metabolism.

It's important to note that while these foods and dietary habits can contribute to a healthy stress response, they are most effective when part of an overall lifestyle approach to stress management. 

An older woman and man enjoying their hobby because they have low cortisol levels

The Low-Cortisol Lifestyle

Lowering cortisol levels and maintaining that low-cort life may require some lifestyle changes. And it's really no surprise that this list includes the usual suspects: sleep, exercise, nutrition, and mindfulness. 

Here are some effective lifestyle strategies for managing cortisol:

  • Regular Physical Activity: Engaging in regular exercise can help reduce cortisol levels and improve overall stress resilience. Aim for a combination of aerobic exercises (e.g., walking, swimming, cycling) and strength training. However, avoid excessive high-intensity exercise, as it can temporarily elevate cortisol levels.
  • Meditation & Breathwork: Meditation and deep breathing exercises can help calm the mind, reduce stress, and lower cortisol levels. Practicing mindfulness regularly can improve your ability to cope with stressors as well.
  • Adequate Sleep: Prioritize sleep by maintaining a regular sleep schedule and creating a comfortable sleep environment. Aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night. 
  • Balanced Nutrition: Eat a well-balanced diet that includes whole grains, lean protein, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats. Avoid excessive caffeine, sugary foods, and alcohol, as they can contribute to cortisol spikes and disrupt sleep.
  • Limit Stimulants: Reduce or eliminate the consumption of stimulants like caffeine and nicotine, especially in the afternoon and evening. These substances can disrupt sleep and increase cortisol levels.
  • Social Support: Maintain strong social connections with friends and family. Having a support system can help you cope with stress and reduce feelings of isolation.
  • Time Management: Organize your schedule and prioritize tasks to reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed. Time management techniques can help prevent chronic stress.
  • Limit Exposure to Stressors: Whenever possible, minimize exposure to stressful situations or environments. This might involve setting boundaries, saying no to additional commitments, or making changes to your work environment.
  • Laugh and Have Fun: Engage in activities that make you laugh and bring joy. Laughter has been shown to reduce stress and improve mood.
  • Hobbies and Leisure Activities: Make time for hobbies and activities you enjoy. Engaging in enjoyable activities can provide a welcome break from stressors. Pickleball anyone?
  • Set Realistic Goals: Set achievable goals and break them down into manageable steps. This can reduce the sense of overwhelm and help you stay focused.
  • Limit Screen Time: Reduce exposure to screens, especially before bedtime. The blue light emitted by screens can interfere with sleep patterns.
  • Nature and Outdoor Time: Spend time in nature and outdoor environments. Nature walks or simply being in natural settings can have a calming effect on the nervous system.
  • Professional Help: If you find that chronic stress is significantly impacting your life, consider seeking help from a mental health professional, such as a therapist or counselor. They can provide valuable guidance and support.

Here’s What You Need to Know About Managing Cortisol

Cortisol, aka the “stress hormone,” plays a crucial role in the body's response to stress and its ability to function effectively in high-pressure situations. However, when cortisol levels remain consistently elevated due to chronic stress, it can have a big negative impact on your health.

From weight gain and sleep disturbances to anxiety, depression, and high blood pressure, the effects of excess cortisol are far-reaching and can significantly impact quality of life. Recognizing the signs of elevated cortisol levels is the first step in addressing these issues and taking proactive measures to manage stress.

For someone dealing with chronic stress, lifestyle changes are absolutely necessary to achieve and maintain balanced cortisol levels. These strategies include a wide range of practices, from regular physical activity and meditation to balanced nutrition and adequate sleep. By incorporating these habits into daily life, you can effectively reduce cortisol levels and cultivate a more resilient response to stress.

An often overlooked – and extremely important – piece of the puzzle is understanding the role of exercise in managing cortisol. While intense and prolonged workouts can elevate cortisol levels, they can be balanced by incorporating low-impact exercises like walking, gentle strength training, and yoga into a fitness routine. To get the best of both worlds, consider slow-motion strength training.

Finally, the role of nutrition in cortisol regulation should not be underestimated. While no single food can directly lower cortisol, a well-balanced diet rich in complex carbohydrates, fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and essential nutrients can help the body better cope with stress and maintain hormonal balance.

This long list of solutions may seem overwhelming and it might feel impossible to do all at once, but it is possible to create change. Start by making adjustments in one area of your life until it becomes a healthy habit. Once you have that down, conquer the next area of life. 

Soon you’ll begin to see and feel the changes in your body! 

Meeting with a Personal Trainer and/or a Nutrition Coach can help you build a game plan to manage your symptoms. 

This is where The Perfect Workout can help.

To speak with a Personal Trainer about exercise, nutrition or any help with lifestyle adjustments please call us at (888) 803-6813.


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5 Ways to Relieve Holiday Stress

Holiday Stress & Ways to Relieve It

Learn about what stress does to your body and some healthy, 20-minute solutions to manage stress levels during the hectic holiday season.

By Jordan Thomson CPT | Updated 12/05/22

Ahh the holidays are here!

Bring on the cocktail parties.
Holiday light parades.
Family get-togethers.
Shopping dates.
Recitals and performances.
Late night gift wrapping.
Susan’s famous cheesy gut-bomb dip 🤤

As much joy and fun as the holidays bring, it can add a heavy layer of stress for many of us.

And while a little stress is no big deal, too much can wreak havoc on your body and health.

In this article we dive into what stress actually does to your body and some realistic ways to manage the holiday hectic. Take a deep breath and let’s get into it.

Jump to Topic:

5 Ways to Relieve Holiday Stress
When Stress Isn’t Your Friend
Stress and Cortisol
Why Does Cortisol Lead To Weight Gain?
Other Ways to Relieve Stress

Santa experiencing holiday stress

5 Ways to Relieve Holiday Stress

There are countless ways to alleviate stress, just as long as we create a little time for them. Don’t worry, we wouldn’t suggest anything that takes anymore than, well… 20 minutes. 😉

Lift Heavy Weights

Lifting heavy weights may sound counterproductive to managing stress, but it can actually go way beyond that and improve depression. Here is what we know about how strength training can help your mental health:

  • For people with existing health issues, a strength training program reduces depressive symptoms and improves overall mood (1).
  • Strength training decreases the severity of depression for those with diagnosed depression (1,2).
  • As little as eight weeks of strength training works for reducing depression (2).
  • Training two or three times per week is shown to reduce depression (1,2).
  • A decrease in anxiety and improvement in overall mood can be seen as quickly as five minutes after the workout is over (3).
  • A single strength training workout can significantly decrease anxiety (3,4).

To think, just a single strength training session can elevate your mood and greatly improve your anxiety level.

If you ask me, this is an ideal way to prevent oncoming stress in addition to relieving it.

Breathe With Intention

Studies show that slow, controlled breathing positively impacts your central nervous system and psychological state. (5) By practicing various methods of breathwork, you can experience immediate benefits such as relaxation, increased comfort, and reduced symptoms of anxiety, depression, anger, and confusion.

Try one of my favorite methods of breathwork the next time you feel like you need to chill out.

Craft Your Space

You know how amazing it feels to have a clean and tidy house? That’s the idea here. Your surroundings play a big part in influencing how you feel. Environment can be relaxing and inspiring, or stressful and triggering. If possible, make your home or at least one room in the house your own personal sanctuary. Tidy up the cushions, light a few candles and make it a place you’d feel relieved to plop down in at the end of the day.

You might be thinking, this is just another project to do and another thing to have to clean up! Don't worry, I’ve got you!

Identify places outside of the home that ignite those same feelings of relaxation or connectedness. For me, it's the steam sauna, the patio at my local library, and wineries- yes I said wineries! What can I say, I like the way they decorate 😉

Whatever your “place” is, consider it a resource for you to get grounded, create calming moments, and relax when stress seems to be getting the better of you.

Keep Alcohol And Caffeine To A Minimum

Studies show both stimulants increase the release of cortisol when you’re stressed. Instead of reaching for an iced coffee, consider a green tea or kombucha.

Completely eliminating alcohol isn’t absolutely necessary but limiting alcohol consumption to the occasional drink can help improve stress levels as well as sleep.


Sleep is quite important in our physical and mental well-being. It’s vital to recovering from workouts and helps to prevent mood disorders and sleep deficiencies. The average American misses out on 300-400 hours of necessary sleep each year, which your body needs to recover from stress.

Reduce the amount of blue light in your room during sleep hours, avoid snacking and boozing before bed. Instead, try reading or exercising closer to bedtime to improve sleep quality. (10)

A couple relaxing on the couch enjoying a book during the holidays

When Stress Isn’t Your Friend

According to The American Institute of Stress, the first thing in managing stress is to actually identify what your triggers are. Some common holiday-related stress triggers can include:

  • Having too many commitments on your schedule
  • Worrying about family members’ wellbeing
  • Feeling like you can’t get to everything in time
  • Experiencing the holidays after losing a loved one
  • Financial hardships
  • Feeling overwhelmed with to-do’s
  • Trouble sticking to healthy habits

But before we can manage stress, let’s first understand what it is and what it is doing to your body.

Stress and Cortisol

When you're under stress, your body produces a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol increases the amount of glucose in your bloodstream to help fuel your body in the event of a “fight or flight” situation. Cortisol also suppresses insulin production, which prevents cells from getting the nutrients they need. This triggers hunger signals to be sent to your brain leading to hunger, overeating, and weight gain.

Why Does Cortisol Lead To Weight Gain?

Elevated levels of cortisol can lead to visceral fat storage (fat under the muscles and around your organs in your abdomen). Cortisol also produces fat cells at a faster rate, which can lead to weight gain and other side effects such as: acne, gastrointestinal issues, joint inflammation and mental health issues.

The solution?

Well, try to stress less. And if you want real, tangible ways to lower your levels this season, try the solutions we covered earlier in this article. But don’t worry, we've got more…

A family laughing together around the dinner table during the holidays

Other Stress Relief Techniques

Give yourself time to unwind daily, otherwise your stress and cortisol levels will remain high. When you are feeling stressed, try one of the following tried and true stress-relieving activities:

  • Walking outdoors
  • Hanging with friends/family (who don’t push your buttons)
  • Meditate/pray
  • Laugh
  • Read a book
  • Listen to calming music
  • Write in a journal

The most important thing to keep in mind here is to take care of yourself. Your physical and mental health are worth investing time in, especially during the hustle and bustle of these last few weeks of the year.

Strength train AND take part in other activities that reduce your stress and add happiness. Connect with your family, spend time in places that make you feel good, create time for your favorite hobbies, and aim to regularly get enough sleep. The holidays can be a stressful time, but remember that you have the power to control your stress levels.
Happy Holidays!


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  • Brosse, A.L., Sheets, E.S., Lett, H.S., & Blumenthal, J.A. (2002). Exercise and the treatment of clinical depression in adults: recent findings and future directions. Sports Medicine, 32(12), 741-760.
  • Bibeau, W.S., Moore, J.B., Mitchell, N.G., Vargas-Tonsing, T., & Bartholomew, J.B. (2010). Effects of acute resistance training of different intensities and rest periods on anxiety and affect. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(8), 2184-2191.
  • Broman-Fulks, J.J., Kelso, K., & Zawilinski, L. (2015). Effects of a single bout of aerobic exercise versus resistance training on cognitive vulnerabilities for anxiety disorders. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy.
  • Stanton, R., Reaburn, P., & Happell, B. (2013). Is cardiovascular or resistance exercise better to treat patients with depression? A narrative review. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 34, 531-538.
  • Stutz J, Eiholzer R, Spengler CM. Effects of Evening Exercise on Sleep in Healthy Participants: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med. 2019;49(2):269-287. doi:10.1007/s40279-018-1015-0
  • Zaccaro A, Piarulli A, Laurino M, Garbella E, Menicucci D, Neri B, Gemignani A. How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life: A Systematic Review on Psycho-Physiological Correlates of Slow Breathing. Front Hum Neurosci. 2018 Sep 7;12:353. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2018.00353. PMID: 30245619; PMCID: PMC6137615.