Why high intensity exercise may leave you feeling more exhausted - and what to do about it

Did you know that I share daily quick little health tips over on Instastories? In a recent one I shared that not everyone feels good with a high intensity exercise session, and the reasons why. Today I want to elaborate on this topic a little, because I received so many comments, questions, and thank you notes for putting this out there.

Some people really thrive on high intensity exercise like running, jumping, and group fitness sessions. Others feel like they got run over by a truck, and can barely get anything done for the rest of the day. I definitely know both sides. I used to be the "go hard or go home" trainer. I would push myself and my clients to the limit, the more jumps the better. Over the years while struggling with adrenal burn out, and now suffering from extreme post-natal depletion, I have really pulled in the reins on high intensity and have started to appreciate the slower, calmer approach to exercise. If you have had a baby, maybe you feel similar? If you feel like you can't lose weight, and you are killing yourself at the gym every day, read on! And if you have ever wondered why your friend loves spinning so much, and you absolutely don't want to join her, then maybe you will have an aha moment now.

I talk a lot about stress hormones, because they really govern everything. You can't talk about thyroid health without stress hormones. You can't deal with fertility issues without talking about stress hormones. When you can't lose weight even though you have tried everything, then start to look at your stress hormones. And that is where we will start right now.

Your body is designed to deal with a stressful situation - a mammoth cutting you off on your way to gather fruit - with the fight or flight response. Either you fight the mammoth using all your strength in the moment or you run away from danger as fast as possible. In order to have the most amount of energy in the moment, your body will increase your heart rate, make you breathe faster, push sugar into your blood for quick energy, shut down your digestion (hello bloating!), your ovaries (bye bye fertility!), your fat burning (good bye any chance of fat and weight loss!), and your brain (no more clear analyzing of the situation, it's do or die). Clearly there are no more mammoths in our life today, BUT our body doesn't know that. Our body hasn't caught up to the smartphone age yet, where we can literally get any fruit (or anything else our heart desires) delivered to our door without ever moving from our bed. Our body responds to any stressful situation with the same extreme changes in our body; whether you are getting cut off in traffic, you have a work deadline, your child is throwing the umpteenth tantrum of the day or your inbox is flooded with emails. Even when people tell me they are not stressed, there are probably close to a hundred situations every day where their stress hormones surge. When this happens, our body gets exhausted from so much hormone production.

The stress hormones (adrenalin and cortisol) are made in the adrenal gland, a little almond shaped gland sitting right on top of our kidneys. When they are constantly asked to churn out hormones to deal with every little stressor in our life, they will at some point get tired and go on strike. You may have heard of adrenal fatigue, this is what this is. Your adrenal gland is tired, and stops making stress hormones.

Stress hormones are not always bad. They make us feel alert and awake, they get us through the day without falling asleep, they make us efficient at our work, and they also control our appetite. When we don't produce enough stress hormones, we feel tired all the time. We can barely drag ourself out of bed, and going for a run is the last thing on our mind. Exercising just makes us more tired and exhausted.

Here is a big piece of information you maybe didn't know: exercise is also a form of stress on our body. However, the benefits of exercising - such as cardiovascular health, stronger muscles, increased joint stability - outweigh the "negative" impact of the stress hormones. When you are in an adrenal fatigue state though, your body will see exercise as just one more stressor it can't deal with. It will make you more exhausted. Any aha moments yet?

So let's put this whole puzzle together. You are constantly stressed, so you body kind of shuts down. You feel exhausted, and even exercising doesn't make you feel better. How do you get yourself out of this? And most of all, how can you still exercise in this state, because we all know that exercising is supposed to be part of a healthy lifestyle?

This is where you see people thriving on yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi or Qigong. Slower movement that is controlled by breathing, not by intensity and heart rate. Please keep reading. I know your mind will automatically shut down now, telling you that this is not the way for you. You don't burn enough calories doing a downward dog so you think you will never lose weight with this? Ask yourself, how has the high intensity exercise worked out for your weight loss so far?

Here is a fascinating fact: the only way science knows right now how to control our body, and tell it that we are not stressed is through our breath. I talk about this all the time, because I want everyone to know this. You can't tell your body "I'm not stressed, just continue to burn fat". The only way your body knows it is not in danger is through deep belly breathing (diaphragmatic breathing). You can't breathe deeply, and also flip someone off. When you are stressed you breathe in short, shallow bursts. That is how your body knows it is in danger. On the flip side your body knows that you are safe and not stressed when you are breathing deeply into your belly. Sounds too easy and too good to be true? Give it a try! That is why you will see people on slow, calm movement routines such as yoga lose weight. The focus on their breath will bring their body into a fat burning state, a relaxed and well rested state.

I know this is a huge change in mindset, and I know that you will want to protest this idea as much as possible. Nevertheless, perhaps I have planted a little seed in your mind, and maybe next time when you are so exhausted after a high intensity exercise session, you will think back on this. On YouTube this Friday I will share one of my favorite restorative yoga sequences with you to calm your mind, your breath, and your body. Look out for it here on the blog.

If you want to give deep breathing a try until then, here are some tips:

  1. Right now, place your hands on your belly. If you are sitting or standing, sit/stand up tall. If you are lying down, get yourself comfortable.

  2. As you inhale, feel your hands fill the air.

  3. The air rushes into your belly, expanding it out. Continue to inhale until your lungs are completely filled, and you feel them expanding out to the side.

  4. Exhale, and push the air out of your belly and out of your lungs.

  5. Do this 3 times, and feel how you are already starting to calm down.

  6. You can do this as many times throughout the day as you remember. I like to give myself little "anchors" throughout the day. For example the moment I sit in the car and fasten my seat belt is one deep breath. The moment I wake up and place my feet on the ground is one deep breath. When I brush my teeth I focus on my deep breath. You get the picture :-)

If this resonated at all with you, then here is a piece of wisdom I would like to leave with you: listen to your body! If your body doesn't respond well to high intensity exercise, don't beat yourself up. There is nothing wrong with you, you are not lacking motivation. Your body is telling you that it needs something else. So go on a search to find something that will work for you. Maybe it's calm, slow yoga (the restorative yin kind, not the hot, sweaty kind :-)), maybe it's joining a Tai Chi group at the park, maybe it's simply going for daily walks. You know your body best, so don't listen to what worked for anyone else.

I would love to hear from you now. Have you ever struggled with feeling utterly depleted after a high intensity exercise session? Have you felt differently when slowing down? Leave me your comments below or send me a love note.

Much love,

#hormones #healthtips #fitnesstips #yoga #Pilates