Exercising With Adrenal Fatigueby Jen Sinkler
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.
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, super 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 is a registered dietitian with a masters in public health nutrition (MPH) from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.