Physical Literacy

Adrenal fatigue and exercise

We don’t give our bodies downtime or recovery they need

koala sleeping in the tree
Photo by Cris Saur

Adrenal fatigue occurs when your body stops responding to stress appropriately, leading to (but not limited to) crushing fatigue, recurring injuries, hormonal imbalances and weight gain or loss. People who have a chronic illness are likely candidates for having adrenal fatigue as well. It’s also increasingly rearing its head in our ‘go-go-go’ culture where we work hard, play hard, exercise hard, and don’t give our bodies downtime or recovery they need.

Should you still workout?

YES! While it may seem counterintuitive to exercise if you are suffering from adrenal fatigue, incorporating some movement is still recommended. The type of activity and intensity will vary from person to person. As such, it is equally important to listen to signals your body is giving you when it’s time to rest, when intensity is too much or when pain replaces discomfort. 

One way to ensure that you are not overdoing it when you are exercising is to monitor how you feel during your workout.  Here’s a great self-monitoring tool I use with my clients and myself:  If you feel like you can do another 5 more reps, consider that a good place to stop. You want to ensure that you’re not overdoing it, and that extra 5 means there is still some fuel left in the tank!  When you’re finished your workout, assess whether you could do it all over again immediately. If the answer is no, you’ve likely pushed too far.

What type of exercise is best?

Prolonged cardio exercise lasting more than an hour is not ideal when managing adrenal fatigue and some recent studies find that intense circuit training with short periods of rest may actually be worse! Workouts like CrossFit or High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), actually cause the most adrenal stress. If you’re dealing with adrenal issues, lower-level cardiovascular and weight training is more beneficial as it is considerably less taxing on the nervous system.

4 adrenal fatigue exercise tips:

  1. Keep your training under an hour; 30 minutes is ideal when you’re starting out.
  2. Get grounded! Walk outside in nature, preferably barefoot, if appropriate. Walking outside in nature has been shown to have tremendous health benefits like reducing anxiety and stress.
  3. Invest in a heart rate monitor to track your heart rate and ensure you’re not working too hard. Your ideal HR should be in zone 2 (60-70% of HRmax)
  4. Slowly start to increase your exercise capacity over time. Adding a little bit more volume, a little bit more work, and over time your capacity will improve!

Cortisol during exercise.

Exercise normalizes hormone levels in the body such as cortisol, insulin, human growth hormone, blood glucose and the thyroid. It puts more oxygen into your brain which is vital for brain growth and healing. Exercise can also decrease symptoms of depression, a common side effect of adrenal fatigue.

Cortisol should be released during exercise, however, once you’re done exercising the cortisol response should go back down as fast as possible. Eating the right fuel after exercise can decrease this cortisol response. Each adrenal snack should ideally contain a good balance of potassium, sodium and natural sugars. Below is a list of my favourite adrenal boosting snacks that will also help lower your cortisol levels. 

  • apple, celery & dates
  • apple, cucumber & cauliflower 
  • orange, avocado & spinach
  • sweet potato, kale & lemon
  • cucumber, avocado & lime
  • banana, dates & romaine lettuce
  • coconut water, apricots & celery
  • coconut water, banana & spinach
  • pear, berries & mache
  • mango, figs & celery
  • orange, cilantro & butter lettuce
  • raspberries, tangerines & green leaf lettuce
  • berries, raw honey & cucumber
  • apple, dates & collard greens

The takeaway.

silhouette of woman raising her right hand

While adrenal fatigue can feel hopeless, there are ways to still maintain overall health and wellness and make essential time and room for recovery. Remember your wellness journey and physical literacy begin by understanding your limits, the right kind of stress and making room for recovery as part of restoring yourself.