How Do You Deal With Stress Through Fitness?

Stress is a normal part of being human. Sometimes we have little, sometimes we have more than any person should ever have to go through. Sometimes it can feel as if the world is coming to an end. Stress is here, stress will always be here. Many things that stress us out are out of our control. What we can control is how we respond to stress.

What is cortisol?

When our body taps into our sympathetic nervous system – fight or flight, we get elevated levels of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol gets a bad rep, but honestly its a very important hormone and one that should go up and down in certain situations. The last thing you want your body doing is chilling out when you are being chased by a bear in the woods.

Cortisol elevates when we exercise, especially with intensity. This is good. This is normal. But so many of us make matters worse by living in a fully elevated cortisol state.

According to DNAFit.com –

Cortisol has a vital job as one of the body’s stress hormones, released as part of the fight-or-flight reflex. It shuts down less critical functions like reproduction and immunity to focus on fighting the immediate physical threat and breaks down tissue to provide the energy necessary.


The functions of cortisol are supposed to be immediate and short-lived, enough to see off any physical challenge. This was great for cavemen fighting saber-toothed tigers -but less ideal in modern lives when stress can be psychological and constant.


Cortisol has a vital physiological role. By raising plasma glucose levels at times of stress, cortisol provides the body with the energy it needs to face bodily attacks from injury, illness, or infection. It has potent anti-inflammatory effects easing irritation and pain.

However, too many people live in an elevated cortisol state.

Signs of this can be: 

  • rapid weight gain mainly in the face, chest, and belly.
  • a flushed and round face
  • high blood pressure/irregular heartbeat
  • breathing issues/chest tightness
  • osteoporosis
  • skin changes (bruises and purple stretch marks)
  • muscle weakness
  • mood swings, which show as anxiety, depression or irritability
  • increased thirst and frequency of urination
  • loss of sex drive
  • irregular periods

If you are constantly living at 100 mph, with an elevated cortisol level, guess what the last thing you should be doing is… high-intensity training/CrossFit/or crazy HIIT classes!

Doing these high-intensity workouts may feel like they help relieve your stress in the short term, but you are really just throwing gas on the fire.

Look back at that first sign of elevated cortisol:

  • rapid weight gain mainly in the face, chest, and belly.


Now, maybe you gained weight because of stress, or maybe it was a reaction to stress by stress eating (more on that in second). But either way, you aren’t handling your stress in a helpful way!

How SHOULD one train when living in high stress?

Strength training and walking, and plenty of recovery time/work/and sleep.

Traditional strength training workouts, 3 days per week, are a golden standard.

To read more about that check this out here.

What about cardio? Walk – and walk outside. The best part about walking is relaxing. It can still be a moderate pace, and you can get a sweat on, but just chilling and strolling through the neighborhood, a park, beach or forest should be enough.

Research has shown that moderate walking reduces cortisol, unlike more high-intensity forms of cardio.

Take deep breaths, get some natural sunlight, and just enjoy a walk.

But what about fat loss, HIIT cardio, and would crushing Metcon workouts?

Look, I love a good challenge myself – but this is the last thing you should be doing if you aren’t sleeping enough or your diet looks like that of a 7th grader.

Most people will get the BEST results from just lifting and walking to cope with stress WHILE doing less stress eating.

It’s no secret that diet matters. A lot.

This is why I view training as a building activity rather than a burning activity. Yes, you do burn calories, but who cares how many your watch says you do – they are often way off anyways.

Fatloss happens in the kitchen for the most part, and it starts with ridding yourself of stress eating as much as possible.

Walking has been shown to reduce cravings for sweets and chocolate – even a 15-minute walk can significantly reduce cravings. 

Use low key “cardio” to manage stress, not the high-intensity training that leads to MORE stress. I put cardio in quotes because this could come in the form of many things – walking, biking, canoeing, yoga, mobility work, etc.

Stop using hard workouts to punish yourself for things that might be out of your control, and allowing this is compound on top of everything else stressful in your life.

If you need help getting started, look no further than online coaching. Training and nutrition! Let me help you find the best plan for you – from anywhere in the world.

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Stay healthy my friends,



Published by Mike Gorski

Registered Dietitian and Fitness Coach OWNER OF MG FIT LIFE LLC