So you’ve been hitting the books on endocrinology related to weight loss and physical activity and you have concluded that Cortisol is the greatest of all catabolic evils (it’s not really that simple). You have also learned that anything other than low level walking is going to spike cortisol. You are a personal trainer so this is a giant smelly wrench in everything you believe to be holy – Hard Work, Sweat, and Glory.

Below is a chart from Hackney et al. from the University of North Carolina, who is one of the leaders in field of neuroendocrinology as it relates to physical activity.

hackney table

As you can see from the chart above, short periods of low level aerobics under 60% of VO2 max are the only way that you are not going to drive the stress response (ACTH, Catecholamine, Cortisol). So what do you do?

Tell all your general pop weight loss clients to change their diet/lifestyle habits and go for leisurely walks every day?

Come on. That’s ridiculous. These people need to be punished for their transgressions. Wrong. So Wrong.

Leisurely walking is exactly how Jim Laird, a very well respected strength coach, on boards his general pop clients. He gives them the dietary/lifestyle tools they need to succeed and sets them loose. If they can’t make it happen, he simply doesn’t take them on as clients. They aren’t ready.

We tend to go with one training session a week to work on movement patterns to keep them motivated, but the majority of our energies are put toward lifestyle interventions. If you do it right, weight will fall off these clients and it will feel too easy (and if it is not, you have to dig deeper into what may be causing their weight loss resistance).

Their bodies are starving and want to improve. True long term weight loss is a side effect of health, and standard exercise (not movement) protocols are far from the biggest driver of health that you have in your tool belt. Something for you to chew on – a recent 8 week CrossFit intervention out of the University of Western Kentucky without a dietary or lifestyle component did not result in significant changes in body composition pre and post testing.

For your general pop/health clients, exercise is something that needs to be added thoughtfully and is not where you will get the most bang for your buck, especially in the beginning. Over 95% of all weight loss interventions that focus on eating less and exercising more – fail. If you don’t want to fail, don’t try to do the same thing everyone else is doing and focus on the job to be done and the most effective way to accomplish it at the lowest price.


So now this trainee has some months of movement under their belt and is no longer coming into the gym with Twinkie goop on the corners of their mouth. They are progressing and you know that you need to get more work done and that work is going to come at a price – Cortisol. The best methodology we have found is quality strength training finished with short burst high intensity interval training based on heart rate recovery.

Before you go from 0 to 60 and start putting all your people on the AirDyne, you have to assess the Global Risk vs. Reward benefit for each client, each day. And regardless, we need to turn the ship around as fast as possible post-workout for all clients/athletes. The human body is not meant to be swimming in stress hormones for long periods of time. Period.

You combine this with the fact that unhealthy folks clear cortisol much more slowly than their healthy counterparts and that body fat converts the stress hormone cortisone back to the more active form of cortisol and you have to be very cognizant of the stress (exercise or otherwise) that you put on these individuals and when. At the end of the day:

“You WANT cortisol high while you’re exercising, but you want it low when you’re not.”
– Dr. Jade Teta

The key as practitioners is being able to produce this adaptation and not let the stress response spin out of control.

So what are the two best ways for human beings to buffer the Cortisol response?

1. Insulin
What? Insulin is evil!!! It stores fat. Ewww. Yes, but cortisol is a glucocorticoid and the main function of cortisol is to raise blood sugar in times of stress. Exercise is a stressor and you want to tell the body the stress has ended as soon as possible from both a physiological and psychological perspective. In other words – carbs and relaxation exercises.

However, there are no hard and fast rules in this profession and I will say that you will have to break this rule for some weight loss clients at some points in time. Some folks have just done too much damage and will not progress with carbs in the system. In this case, you will have to be even more aware of your exercise dosage and have to dig or collaborate with someone in the Functional Medicine realm.

2. Sleep
As Dr. Kirk Parsley says low level sleep is the opposite of adrenals (or the cortisol response). If you are not getting 8-9 hours of sleep, you are just not serious about your health/performance goals.

Now what I believe are the two most under-appreciated aspects of health and fitness:

1. Breathing
Diaphragmatic breathing is one of THE best methodologies to activate the parasympathetic nervous system which is the opposite of the stress response. Also, if your goal is to improve movement and tissue quality, you absolutely must address breathing (and their buffering system).

With clients I know are suffering with stress related weight gain or health concerns, I finish all sessions with bodywork and deep breathing exercises. Every one of these clients says this in some form or fashion after the session: “I want to bottle this feeling up.” They are relaxed, ready for a snack, and prepared to crush the rest of the day. They are not blurry eyed, beat up, and crawling on hot cement to their car.

2. Sleep
Again!? It’s that important. Lack of sleep is related to a fall in literally every quality of health marker under the sun. The majority of our culture is sleep deprived and skipping on sleep is seen as somehow heroic. However, sleeping is the most natural anabolic process we can partake in. What Anabolic? Time for a nap!

This is far from an all inclusive how to post on what we do, but if you want to learn more on this subject you can pick up Dr. Hackney’s textbook – Endocrinology of Physical Activity and Sport, enroll in one of Dr. Rakowski’s Athletic Optimization Seminars, and/or follow/read anything by Jade Teta.