A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Inside an Enigma
When Winston Churchill said these famous words in a radio address over eighty years ago, he wasn’t talking about cortisol, exercise, or anything related to individual health and wellness – and he definitely wasn’t talking about recovery. He was talking about world affairs and the unpredictable nature of diplomacy. But the sentiment behind his clever turn of phrase perfectly sums up how many people in recovery feel when they’re told exercise is an important recovery activity because it lowers cortisol levels. It’s a head scratcher – especially since it’s repeated so often and with such certainty it’s as if we’re all supposed to know it already, like we know the moon orbits the earth and the earth orbits the sun.
You say to yourself, “That’s interesting. Cortisol is the stress hormone, right? It’s released in response to stress. And isn’t exercise a type of physical stress? I wonder how that works, exactly.” Then you go online and do some digging and find out exercise stimulates a spike in cortisol levels. And therein lies the conundrum: exercise is a type of physical stress, cortisol is the stress hormone, and exercise causes a short-term cortisol release.
So how does this whole lowering-cortisol-through-exercise thing work, exactly?
The Big Picture: Cortisol in Context
To understand how exercise lowers cortisol levels, we need to take a look at the health benefits of exercise, because nothing in the human body ever happens in isolation. Our physiological systems are related in both form and function. When we’re healthy overall, each system supports the others, and when one falters, the others can temporarily fill in the gaps and mitigate potential long range damage and negative consequences.
In general, a regular exercise regimen:
- Maintains and builds cardiovascular strength and efficiency
- Maintains and builds muscular strength
- Improves coordination
- Increases metabolic rate
- Improves insulin efficiency (the ability of the body to process insulin)
- Increases release of endorphins (the body’s natural pain-relievers)
- Increases release of serotonin and dopamine (neurotransmitters associated with pleasure and reward)
- Improves sleep
- Strengthens immunity
- Improves self-esteem
It’s true: exercise elicits a short-term release of cortisol in the body. The operative phrase being short-term. Cortisol levels drop after exercise, though, and the benefits listed above are what really matter. Good sleep keeps cortisol production dialed in at its natural diurnal (daily) rhythm. An efficient metabolism ensures the proper processing of cortisol. Serotonin and dopamine help us feel good and recognize the things that make us feel good. A healthy cardiovascular system delivers the entire body the nutrients it needs all day every day. Insulin efficiency combats diabetes and keep excess weight off.
Practice Makes Perfect
In addition to creating a robust internal physical environment capable of handling temporary cortisol surges due to stress, scientists from the American Psychological Association suggest exercise gives the body extra practice dealing with stress. The acute stress from exercise also makes our various physiological systems streamline their channels of communication, which prepares them to act with increased efficacy in times of true need. The central and sympathetic nervous systems manage communication between our cardiovascular system, our muscular system, our immune system, and most relevant to our hormone balance, our endocrine system. When you give your body a workout, you also give your nervous system and everything else a workout: you train yourself to handle whatever life throws at you, whether it’s related to age, illness, or psychological and emotional challenges.
Winston Churchill knew relationships were everything. He understood maintaining them was the key to survival. This lesson is directly applicable to our understanding of cortisol in the body, and how exercise helps lower cortisol levels. It also helps us understand why exercise helps people in recovery. It helps people in recovery from addiction, and it also helps people in treatment for emotional or beahvioral disorders learn to manage their symptoms and create life-affirming habits that support optimal mental and emotional health.
when we exercise, we create a positive and nurturing space within our bodies. We make each system an ally of the others. If we encounter temporary setbacks, our allies – our physiological systems, our friends – are there to help. Exercise is a form of emergency preparedness for the real thing. And we’re not talking about spending five days a week in the gym doing intense workouts. We’re talking about simple things like taking daily walks, staying active, and keeping our bodies moving.
That’s really all we need to do.
Cortisol may surge, but we’ll be ready.
We’ll get by with a little help from our friends.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA. He writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.