Exercising With Adrenal Fatigue

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Editor’s Note: This post comes to you from Laura Schoenfeld, MPH, RD, holistic nutritionist based in Raleigh, N.C., and cocreator of Paleo Rehab: Adrenal Fatigue, a five-week program that helps heal the effects of adrenal fatigue

It’s worth noting that the term “adrenal fatigue” is a controversial one, but the collection of symptoms (which can be caused by a number of health problems) is something that many practitioners agree is a problem for many. If the problem is indeed fatigue-based, making lifestyle (including sleep, stress, and fitness habits) and nutritional adjustments can be very healing.  

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Adrenal fatigue is the layperson’s term for hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis dysregulation. This condition causes your body to stop responding to stress appropriately, leading to crushing fatigue, recurrent injuries, hormonal imbalances, weight gain or loss, and more.

It’s a shockingly common issue, especially in our go-go-go culture, where people work hard, play hard, exercise hard, and don’t give their bodies the downtime and recovery they need. Many people with adrenal fatigue exercise too hard for the condition they’re in. They push themselves past the point of exhaustion until they’ve landed face down in Stage 3 adrenal fatigue (the worst stage). Then it takes months to recover.

Avoiding overtraining is a crucial part of adrenal recovery, and that’s why most adrenal fatigue guidelines include a significant reduction in training volume, if not a temporary break from training altogether.

But if you have adrenal fatigue, do you really have to give up exercise to heal? Is walking and gentle yoga the maximum movement you should do, or can you still incorporate strength training and cardiovascular exercise safely, without worsening the state of your adrenals? 

Walking outdoors and yoga are typically recommended for adrenal fatigue recovery, as both have been shown to reduce cortisol levels. These two types of exercise modulate the stress response, benefitting those with adrenal fatigue who have chronically elevated cortisol or who no longer produce cortisol appropriately in response to stress.

In other words, if your only exercise during adrenal recovery is leisurely walking outside and regular yoga practice, that’s great — you’ll see major improvements in your adrenal function using this approach.

But if you’re itching to get back into heavier training modalities or higher-intensity workouts, it’s crucial to do it in a safe way that won’t tank your adrenals even further.

Notice that I said “get back into” and not “start” high-intensity training. If you have adrenal fatigue and you’ve never done heavy lifting or high-intensity interval training, this is not the time to start. But if you’re a former CrossFitter or powerlifter who misses the feeling of iron in your hands, there are ways to return to weight training without further damaging your adrenals. (Of course, always check with your personal healthcare provider before starting any exercise program.)

Retrain Against The Grain

Your history of exercise will help determine an appropriate exercise level in adrenal fatigue. Many people wind up with adrenal fatigue because of a history of overtraining, and individual tolerance for exercise depends on genetics, training history, and environmental factors that impact recovery, including stress management, adequate nutrition, and appropriate sleep quality.

Don’t try to work out more intensely than you did before you developed adrenal fatigue. And even if you’re a veteran of high-intensity interval training, you’ll need to adjust your routine to support adrenal recovery.

All resistance exercise causes a temporary increase in cortisol, but the highest cortisol increases are observed in protocols which are high in both volume and intensity, and combined with short rest intervals. To minimize your cortisol response to exercise, keep training sessions short in duration, take adequate rest in between sets, and reduce the weight if necessary.

For short, high-intensity sessions, use strategies that condense work time into a very short timeframe. A great example of this is Tabata intervals, where you perform 20 seconds of all-out work and 10 seconds of rest for 8 rounds total. If you’re counting, you’ve got it right: that equals 4 minutes of exercise. While it sounds comically inadequate, Tabata training can be more effective than longer duration cardio for building aerobic and anaerobic capacity. Use these interval timeframe for any type of exercise, including lifting weights, running, rowing, and cycling. [Editor’s note: True Tabata intervals are very, very intense, and lend themselves best to cardio pursuits rather than lifting pursuits, but the point remains that it’s a nice time construct and work-to-rest ratio for those suffering from adrenal fatigue.]

For adequate rest between sets, set up a longer circuit training routine that hits all major body parts while allowing for adequate recovery in between sets. Pick a set of exercises that covers all of the five primal movements — squat variations, pushing, pulling, core stability, and hip hingeing — and perform each movement for 5 reps. Go through this circuit 3-5 times, taking as much rest as necessary in between exercises to recover. (If you haven’t already grabbed your copy of Jen’s Lift Weights Faster 2 program, use this fantastic guide to create safe and effective circuit training sessions while allowing yourself as much rest as necessary between sets.)

While healing from adrenal fatigue, limit training sessions to 4 to 5 times per week, and don’t train for longer than 60 minutes at a time. Keep steady-state cardio to 20-30 minutes max until your adrenals are functioning normally again. See how you feel the next day after training, and take a day or more off if you’re extra sore or exhausted.

Overtraining becomes much more of an issue for people who are undereating, crazy stressed, or sleeping less than 7 hours per night. To that end, keep in mind the other factors that will make a huge impact on your training while healing from adrenal fatigue. These include a nourishing diet, regular stress management, and 7 to 9 hours of quality sleep nightly.

 

Laura_Schoenfeld__MPH__RD_-_Nutritionist___About_LauraLaura Schoenfeld is a registered dietitian with a masters in public health nutrition (MPH) from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. 

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Author:Jen Sinkler

Fitness writer and editor, workout connoisseur, meditator, proponent of spandex, former rugby player; never, ever without lip gloss.
Comments: 18

18 Responses to “Exercising With Adrenal Fatigue”

  1. August 12, 2015 at 10:52 am #

    Great article with GREAT info that I’ll be sharing with the Fit2B community where we get a LOT of customers coming to us for our laid back workouts while they heal their adrenals. I didn’t even set out to reach that crowd; our focus is on gentle “tummysafe” fitness for those working to narrow their diastasis recti. Somehow the word got out that we’re also great for adrenal fatigue with our yoga, pilates, slower weight lifting styles, etc. I would so love to connect with this author and have her connect with my following to get them some more answers! Thanks for the article!

  2. Nichole
    August 12, 2015 at 3:16 pm #

    I’m not diagonosed adrenal fatigue because I just thought I was out of shape and being lazy and didn’t think there was anything to help my condition. I’ve not been able to work hard for a few years and just when I think I’m getting back into my groove BAM I get injured.

    I’m going to try this change in my routine and see if I can get back into shape.

    Is there a cure for adrenal fatigue or is this something I will fight for the rest of my life?

    • Cherwyn
      January 16, 2016 at 7:52 am #

      Nichole, I’m sorry no one has taken the time to respond to your question. It took me years, but I was able to get over adrenal fatigue. With proper stress management, diet, supplements, excellent treatment of my thyroid problem, and going gluten-free (because gluten was causing my body stress in the midst of my autoimmune thyroid condition), I’m now adrenally healthy and am getting back to regular exercise! Very cautiously, though! I first got sick 13 years ago with hypothyroidism and adrenal fatigue. It has been a very long haul. But it took me a long time to learn what I needed to do. Perhaps it will take you less time. Good luck!

  3. melanie
    August 13, 2015 at 7:09 am #

    I am suffering with joint pain which my chiropractor diagnosed as over active adrenal glands and too much cortisol. I have always been active and a person who goes to the gym. I lift. I watch carbs/calories/sugar and stay away from over-processed foods. However, my adrenal issue is coming from stress due to divorce. The divorce is over but the stress, anxiety and fear that spike my adrenals is still with me. Your article suggests walking, so I will change my schedule to accommodate that. If there are other ways to get rid of the stress, anxiety and fear, I would like to hear about them. I’m 48, and have noticed mild hot flashes with the stress, plus swollen glands in my neck/throat every time the anxiety returns. I’m really over it. I want it to stop.

  4. Veronica
    January 22, 2016 at 1:46 pm #

    Hello melanie,
    I suffered from adrenal fatigue follow with anxiety, depression, stress, etc. I fear almost everything I felt like I couldn’t function how I used to. I started seeing a nutritionist who diagnosed me with adrenal fatigue and put me under a proper nutrition and suggest that i stop in taking chocolate, sugars, and caffeine, and also reduce my workouts because i was a person that love cardio and heavy workouts. All these were triggering my adrenal glands and cause me to feel fatigue. Now that i follow proper nutrition and do light workouts I been maintaining a healthier and a better life style with more energy consumption. I do suggest a nutritionist to put you back in path and balance you back to normal.

  5. Shawna
    February 19, 2016 at 12:38 pm #

    Thanks for the article. I have am certain my adrenal system has almost shut down after years of extreme stress. I have been doing some intense training 6 days a week and I’m not seeing any results at all. I am just trying to figure out what to switch up, so this is helpful.

  6. Kate
    February 21, 2016 at 2:36 am #

    Oh yea gods! Hooray! I FINALLY feel someone else gets it. I found over the last 6 mths, I just don’t want to weight train – AT ALL. After years of submitting myself to stress, I’ve collapsed. I’ve been seeking understanding for why this sudden avoidance of the gym has happened. It all makes sense now.

  7. stacey
    February 24, 2016 at 1:51 pm #

    I’m glad I found this site, I have been having all symptoms of adrenal fatigue. I haven’t gotten my cortisol levels checked at all. But I am totally assuming this is what’s going on with me. I used to do hiit and weights. I didnt lift real heavy, I’m a small girl, so I haven’t been able to move up with how much weight I lift. I actually couldn’t build up a lot of strength at all. I have worked out off and on for like 4 yrs now, it’s been a roller coaster, I’m so unhealthy. I crave the WORST foods ever. I’m addicted to really bad food. I have a food addiction. Even though I am small. I have managed to stay small, because I count calories. So on the recent past, may eat really bad for the day, but I make sure I don’t go over 12 to 1400 calories, plus I workout. So that knocks off calories (not a good habit this has been! I admit that) but I am trying so hard to overcome my addiction to takeout, fast food, restaurants etc. And I’m trying so hard to make healthy change’s to my diet, and eat at home instead of eating out. It is so hard for me, because like I said, it feels like a literal addiction to that type of food. And I can cook good, I just like fast food, and all those other unhealthy foods. But I had started lifting and doing hiit in 2014 and up until about Aug 2015, I was eh, ok doing my workouts, I still got dizzy sometimes, but I could handle it. But since about Nov of 2015, it has gotten so bad, I can hardly lift my 40 lbs doing overhead presses, or bicep curls, without getting dizzy and I have blacked out even. Then after I get done lifting and doing hiit, my day is shot, I feel like I have to peel myself off the floor, or my bed (I workout at home) when I just land facedown on my bed because It was just too much. I had no clue I was harming myself by pushing myself. Now I do cycling for 20 mins. And I do tabata on my exercise bike, but thats even too much for me. I get dizzy still, and my day isn’t as bad as it was when I was lifting a lot and doing hiit training, but it’s bad for like 3 hrs after I get off my bike. Do I need to cut back even more? I hate working out, I’m not gonna lie, but I hate it so much because it has NEVER energized me, it has never made me feel better aferwards. I have always felt drained after I workout. It just has gotten so bad with the dizziness and fatigue. And I’m half decent when I don’t work out at all, but I gain weight so quickly and I chalk that up to bad diet, and possibly this fatigue stuff that’s going on. My homeopathic dr told me she thinks I have thyroid problems as well. But I’m not big, I just gain weight, and water retention so bad. I’d love to get myself better, but I don’t wanna give up working out. I have a fear that I’m going to gain a bunch of weight because I have gained 10 pounds in less than 3 months a few yrs ago and I don’t want to get that unhealthy. I have already made changes to my diet and I take supplements, but I don’t have to stop working out do I?

    • Gladys
      March 20, 2016 at 4:55 pm #

      Hi Stacey,

      I had similar symptoms to you- dizziness, fatigue, adrenals were inflamed and a ton of other symptoms sometimes during, but mostly after working out. This began in Nov. 2015…. As a precaution because I had yet to test my cortisol levels I quit exercising. I couldn’t handle anything, not even play with my dog without getting dizzy (which at times was lasting a full week!). Instead, I swapped my workouts for restorative yoga and walking. Like you, I was doing HIIT, and strength training before this. I terribly miss it…but I had to be realistic about what I could do. I still have not been able to pick up on strength or HIIT, because I feel dizzy and still feel adrenals get inflamed- but am slowly easing myself into a more regular workout schedule with yoga, pilates and barre.

      I did gain a few lbs….mostly my fault for junky eating. However, I am finding my adrenals like a higher fat diet especially in the mornings.

      Wanted to share my story with you. Do what is right for you, I know it’s rough- I’m slowly seeing improvements. Take care!

      • Stacey
        November 14, 2016 at 1:00 am #

        I was finally diagnosed with adrenal fatigue a few months ago and I cannot overcome it. I quit working out in july because I cant do anything. I tried to lift weights a few weeks ago and it was one of my worst days ever and for days afterwards. I cant do anything. Even bending over to pick something up has me horribly dizzy. My health took a bad turn for the worse in Aug. I have a kidney disease and I got an infection and went into septic shock and almost died. So I am be easy with my body because I am realizing my body is not tough, and I need to be gentle with it. Im hoping I can recover, but its definitely not happening at all now. I can do absolutely nothing all day except bare minimum cleaning in my house and I can be dizzy all day and even if I do nothing at all. Laying in bed all day, but as soon as I get up to go potty or eat Im dizzy. I hate this 🙁 but I can handle this better than horrible kidney stone pain every dag all day for months and months. But its still so so so hard to go through daily. I hope your feeling better!

  8. Emily
    June 9, 2016 at 5:26 am #

    I have a high stressed life! Well I always have..
    BUT love training I know I have adrenal stress from my daily things.. but going to gym to HIT it
    To me seems a distress!?
    Ok I train hard sometimes well most days 2hrs doing weight lifting use all the machines and do a lot of machine back work..
    I cant hit my legs BC of a car accident hurt my knees and ankle plays up sometimes!
    gained weight after car then lose then gain and after stress a weird tummy blow out then once I distress Wow weird rapid weight loss ..but to lose weight I need to eat very little I can lose weight…and I can gain it I have a lot of muscle lean the only place fat is it the lower tummy
    anyhow ..
    I noticed when I started my new gym I could lift heavy really heavy for a girl shun the pun:D But now I go down and down in weight kg more BC I cant lift that heavy and I also know I shouldn’t try So I lift lighter now
    But I go though fast in the two hours I work like heck I go from one thing to another My reps a 10 and sets are 5 each body part and my stops are maybe if I count between um like maybe 10 sec to 20 maybe 30 then NXT! ok its bad maybe not? But I train with my brother So we both hit it hard we are competitive I’ve trained for many years
    Ok I have a swollen upper ab on one side my left I think it mite be Well Im scared to think what it is..yep I know doc ahh
    But under major stress this week It struck pain!!!OMG I couldn’t cope the pain right there the swelling popped out again… Is it the spleen?
    is it part of adrenal fatigue?? ..
    Why if I’m or I can push so hard .. lets say.. am I so bad ? am I killing myself off with the thing I love training ?
    I’m scared really
    I don’t want to lose my life for the one thing I adore that distressed me for ever
    Oh forgot to say I train nearly every day of the week 1 day off
    I don’t get to tied or sore muscles Am I weird?
    Been doing exercise since a child so maybe im just mefit ?
    I know I have to slow down I get Low BP allergy response and genetic But I can avoid without eating allergy food and SAL’s salicylates)
    I know the despair thing can drop my BP too
    Meditation saves me
    Thank YOU x so much for all your blog bless u

  9. Amy
    July 2, 2016 at 9:27 am #

    Is it OK to do Pure Barr 5 days a week if I’m in stage 2 of adrenal fatigue? I have a foot injury that doesn’t really allow me to walk 4-5 miles. I’m getting results with pure barr unlike any other intense exercise I used to partake in which got me to adrenal fatigue in the first place 🙁 thanks!!!

  10. Rachel
    September 9, 2016 at 1:09 pm #

    I had an adrenal removed in 2009 due to Cushing’s. It took a year to recover and get off replacement medicine, but my other adrenal is supposedly back to normal. However, I have sporadic symptoms including dizziness and weakness while weight lifting. I have had extremely high blood pressure hours after. I have played in a soccer league and find that after a game, I feel like I have a fever and heat is coming off my head hours later. Could this be related to having one adrenal and my history of Cushing’s? My cortisol levels have been normal, extremely high, and low on different tests since. And I have had high aldosterone since. Should I play soccer this season or retire? I’m concerned about damaging my only adrenal.

    • September 9, 2016 at 1:27 pm #

      Hi, Rachel,
      I’m so sorry to hear what you’ve been going through! Unfortunately, the only advice I’m legally able to give you is to find a medical professional who will take the time to work specifically with YOU to figure out what’s going on with YOU (I’d recommend seeking out a functional medicine doc: https://www.functionalmedicine.org/practitioner_search.aspx?id=117). Best of luck to you!

  11. Angela
    October 28, 2016 at 11:04 am #

    Thank you for this information!
    Quick question – I walk an hour each day. I’ve been diagnosed with adrenal fatigue by a natural health practitioner. Is an hour too much? I know it’s not really cardio, but just wondered if the 20 minutes applied there as well. I do short kettlebell workouts (20ish minutes, maximum) about 3 times a week and yoga once a week.
    Thanks!

    • November 13, 2016 at 1:58 pm #

      Hi Angela,
      I think it comes down to how that hour of walking makes you feel. Like Laura says in the article, walking outside is great for healing the adrenals but you have to make sure the duration and intensity you are doing is right for YOU. I have the same issue and have to be very mindful of how I feel the day after and even the day after. I’ve had low cortisol so exercise boosts me up and I feel better right after but can crash the next day. Pay attention to your appetite and your sleep as well. If you feel tired the next day and just want to nap then maybe cut back. If you feel ok, then you are on the right track 🙂 Hope this helps!

  12. Joe
    July 22, 2017 at 5:01 pm #

    What is a good heart rate range for exercise with andrenal and stress problems?

    I feel like I go way to hard thinking more is better. I usually do 30-45 mins at 160-170 bpm but I think it really wears me out. Afterwards I feel drained and even more stressed out than before. I’ve never seen any improvements in my condition after months of regular intense exercise. I think I would be better off doing light cardio at 130-140 bpm for 30 minutes 3-5x a week for a month or two before increasing the intensity back to normal.

    • October 16, 2017 at 12:16 pm #

      Hi Joe,

      more is definitely not better when you experience adrenal and stress issues. You already mention that you feel drained and even more stressed out after working out than before. That’s a very clear signal that you are pushing too hard. Also, if you hardly see any improvements after months, than it’s time to do things differently. You may go for 20-30 minute walks, some swimming, cycling, some yoga or tai chi. Start off with 3 times a week, and gradually built things out. Pay close attention to your body’s response after your workout. If you feel drained and even more stressed, than go lighter.

      Take care, Jorden

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