I can’t even tell you how many times I googled this exact phrase over the last year, in constant fear that I was causing further dysfunction to my adrenals with my workout routine. For the first time ever, I was actually thinking about how working out TOO MUCH could be causing health issues, such as adrenal fatigue, or at least not making them any better.
Because I’m a personal trainer and have spent the last 11 years in the fitness industry, I have always thought of exercise as the key to the door of optimal health, which I still believe to be true. But, I have finally figured out the fine little line where working out becomes detrimental instead of impactful. I had to learn this the hard way.
I realized my adrenals were in dysfunction after my first salivary ASI (adrenal stress index) test in March of 2015, almost a year ago. This was following a severe salmonella infection that completely wiped me out for months, so it was no surprise that my body’s stress response was on high alert. And it showed with a reading of high cortisol.
WHAT IS ADRENAL FATIGUE?
Now is probably a good time to break in from the story and give a super brief, general overview of what ‘adrenal fatigue’ actually is. There has been some debate over what to call it in the integrative health world and I actually think ‘adrenal dysfunction’ is the best term, even though ‘adrenal fatigue’ is more commonly known. Here’s what is actually going on:
When you and/or your body are under stress, your adrenal glands release cortisol. Cortisol is a steroid hormone that has many functions within the body, one of which is to control the stress response, giving you the ability to handle that stressor appropriately.
This mechanism in our body was designed with the intention that we would be exposed to stress and switch into a sympathetic (fight or flight) state very briefly (say a few minutes, max) perhaps a couple of times per day and the rest of the day would be spent in a parasympathetic (rest and digest) state. That would allow your adrenals plenty of time to recover, get back to homeostasis, and prepare for the next stressful event. However, we don’t live like that. We are a chronically stressed society.
CHRONIC STRESS IS THE CULPRIT.
This leads the adrenals to start pumping out excessive cortisol to maintain this chronic stress and at times of the day where it shouldn’t be high. Because your body needs to continuously produce this large amount of cortisol, it takes away the much-needed nutrients, energy, and focus from the making of your other very important hormones like estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. This leads to hormonal imbalance. But, that is a whole other story with its own symptoms and issues, which will be covered in a future post.
Eventually, your adrenals just can’t keep up with the excess demand anymore and tap out. While you are still stressed out, you no longer have the capacity to manage it. Your body’s communication system, headed by the hypothalamus and pituitary, has been dismantled too. This is where the word ‘fatigue’ comes in. But, as you can see, there are many different stages to this issue, all of which involve several organs (pituitary, hypothalamus, and adrenals, at minimum) getting to a state of dysfunction.
That’s all I will say about what’s going on exactly in adrenal fatigue/adrenal dysfunction in this post. For a more detailed explanation and to see a list of signs and symptoms, check out this post and this post.
Ok, back to the story…
high cortisol a year ago. I immediately started in on all stress relieving techniques. Baths, lots of sleep, meditation, elimination of all possible stressful foods, herbal adaptogens, getting out in nature, etc. The one thing I really didn’t find as easy to change was my workouts. Having just come off of a powerlifting meet (I won!) and a Tough Mudder race (I barely survived.), I wasn’t really taking it easy in the gym. But now, I knew that needed to change. Should I do anything? Could I still do SOMETHING?
I knew how important movement and strength are to overall health, healing, and happiness, but I also knew that my workouts need to look a lot different than they had in the past. I did the research, wrote myself program after program, being the guinea pig for each one and finally found the perfect balance. I could workout with adrenal fatigue. Phew!
Guess what? I wrote it all down in a beautiful, easy to follow e-book program, Health In Strength, so you don’t have to do the research yourself! I’ve combined everything I know from 11 years in the fitness industry, training people who are sick, immobile, aging, or injured, with the knowledge I have gained about adrenal dysfunction and other chronic illnesses, to create the perfect workout program!
Here’s what I have learned.
10 Steps To Working Out With Adrenal Fatigue
1. Tune In.
For so long, I didn’t really pay much attention to how I felt before my workouts. I didn’t make the connection between my overall sense of well-being each day and the workout I was supposed to do. I had my workout program and that was that. Even if I felt crummy, but it was “squat day,” I still did squats.
I now know that if you suffer from adrenal issues, you can’t determine your workout for the day until you tune in to how you’re feeling that day. And, the thing with adrenal fatigue is, every day is different. So, planning out your workout even the night before doesn’t work. You may wake up feeling like you got run over by a truck. Conversely, you could be planning a rest day, but have quite a bit of energy after an awesome night’s sleep and want to workout!
The point is, you need to take inventory every single day of how your body, mind, and spirit feel THAT day.
- How’s your energy?
- How are your joints?
- Do your muscles feel fatigued?
- Would a nap be better than a workout?
Once you’ve gathered that information, then you can choose the workout. This was the most important aspect of writing Health In Strength because I wanted to make sure it didn’t feel like a program that was already set in stone. So, while every day there is a prescribed workout, it is also very easy, and very much encouraged, to mix them all up!
2. Focus on strength
Building muscular strength is paramount to full, all-encompassing, lasting health. Lean muscle mass provides a healthy metabolism, a strong foundation for bones and joints, better movement patterns, perfect posture, and less stress on the body to maintain its positioning. That makes it pretty clear that while you need to take it easy, you still need to move and build strength. No question.
Your primary workouts should involve a full body, low intensity, resistance training circuit. It should be intense enough to feel your muscles working and becoming slightly fatigued, but not so much so that you get shaky, weak, or excessively sore. If you are used to lifting weights based on 1 rep max percentages, this would be about 50-65% of your 1RM. You can also go by the exertion scale, aiming to get to about 60-70% exertion level. Don’t worry, in Health In Strength, I provide this exertion scale and explain what level to get to based on your symptoms and energy level.
3. Get rest
More than you need a workout, you need to rest during this phase of your life. That will be THE THING that gets you back to feeling like yourself again. Not only does high-quality sleep need to be your biggest priority, but also getting enough rest between workouts is critical. This means actual rest days, where instead of going to the gym, you take a walk outside, do gentle yoga, lay on the couch, whatever.
Again, if you tune in to your body, it will lead you to the right movement for that day. These restful days are built-in to the Health In Strength program because they are THAT important that I felt the need to require them. While there are 3 strength training days per week, there are also days to do yoga, days to do 30 minutes of enjoyable activity, and days of completely chilling out. It’s all built in!
4. Get over yourself
This is SUCH a big one. You need to just get over that fact that you NEED to workout intensely. No…you don’t. You’re not going to burn any more fat, gain any more muscle, or get any stronger/leaner/faster/more powerful by pushing yourself too hard right now. In fact, the opposite will happen. Do you know what has a bigger effect on body composition than your high-intensity workouts? Â Wonky cortisol.
5. Favor health over looks
Going right along with the above point, this is also a time where you MUST put your health goals over your aesthetic goals. It’s a hard one, I know from experience. With high/low cortisol, also comes changes to your body composition.
And it’s not something that can be controlled with diet and exercise, as we’ve entrusted in the past. I can tell you this with 100% certainty. The quicker you can make your health a priority, the quicker you will get back to homeostasis, and the quicker your body will respond physically.
6. Cut the cardio
Do you want to know what workout type is the absolute worst for your cortisol levels and the health of your adrenals? Long bouts of cardio. Activities such as running or cycling that elevate your heart rate and keep it there for an extended period of time —think 20 minutes or more—will turn on the cortisol faucet.
Instead, get your cardio in by doing intervals! This type of workout provides more health benefits with far less stress. I really like this article explaining the range of benefits from interval training. I’ve included this type of workout as part of the Health In Strength program, complete with exactly how much time you should be moving versus how much time you should spend resting in between intervals. There’s also a list of ideas for movements that make great interval workouts, depending on your level of fitness and how you’re doing health-wise, so EVERYONE can participate!
7. Keep it stress-free
Remember, all of this change in a workout routine is to heal your adrenals because stress has made your cortisol too high, too low, or some combination of the two. In order to do so, you have to keep your cortisol in check. The less your body requires cortisol throughout the day, the quicker you will get well. This includes your workouts.
It takes a bit of trial and error to actually find the workout level that allows you to workout, without getting your cortisol involved. It goes back to getting in tune with your body and understanding what your body would perceive as stress. It also goes back to releasing the need for intensity and instead just focusing on the movement.
Basically, find the intensity level where you aren’t feeling fatigued, exerted, shaky, out of breath, but are still moving, increasing your heart rate, and slightly quickening your breath. It’s a fine line…but it’s there for each of us.
You will severely delay your healing if you don’t start taking some deep breaths. Taking as few as five deep breaths can switch your nervous system from a sympathetic to a parasympathetic state. And, if you are currently dealing with adrenal dysfunction, it is clear that you don’t spend enough time, if any at all, in this restful state. Until you do so on a regular, frequent basis, you will remain stuck.
I find the best, easiest, most peaceful way to do this is to prioritize my mind/body practice. This often means yoga for me, but sometimes also is just taking some deep breaths while I’m on a walk. Whatever you decide is best for you, just make sure to do it and make it a lifelong habit. It really is that powerful.
9. Fuel up
I wouldn’t be a very reliable nutritionist if I didn’t talk about food! Don’t even think about working out with adrenal fatigue if you haven’t properly fueled yourself! And while I won’t go into the carbs vs. fat debate here because that would be another 20,000 words, I will say this: eat a lot of really good, whole, organic, properly-prepared food.
If you think you’re eating enough, add another few spoonfuls because I can almost guarantee you’re not. Just as much as chronic cardio is a stressor, so is undernourishment! You need even more fuel if you are going to work on building some lean muscle.
10. Get guidance
Take it from someone who has worked with a personal trainer for years, professional guidance through this process will be priceless. Unfortunately, many personal trainers don’t understand the shaky balance between working out and healing the adrenals, and will often push you too hard, causing even more harm.
That is where the Health In Strength program comes in! I wrote this program with those exact thoughts in mind. Because not only have I been there myself, but I still see so many clients struggling to find that balance.
For 4 weeks, I will be your personal trainer. I will provide all of the tools and knowledge you need to do it right. I’ll make sure your form is spot on by providing very in-depth descriptions for each movement as well as photos showing exactly what it should look like. It’s fool-proof!
All you need is a few pairs of dumbbells, some resistance bands, and a desire to heal your adrenal fatigue!
Struggling with your adrenal health but still want to work out?
Follow the Health In Strength Home Workout Program to get fit and strong while on the mend.