My favorite, most brilliant therapist I know, Renee Branson, wrote a great article on her attempt to relax over the weekend by running through barbed wire, fire and mud. This was not an audition for a Mad Max sequel. She was a contestant in the Warrior Dash: an arduous, 3.5 mile race through the woods with obstacles galore. I am sure she is still sore and cleaning mud out of her car. And, she is more relaxed.
Her article talked about the importance of managing the stress hormone, cortisol, that is part of everyone’s lives. It is a necessary, life preserving hormone. When a bear appears in your campground, it is what allows your fat little butt to run a five-minute mile. However, it takes a toll on the body. No free lunch, folks. You have heard that many times from me before.
Cortisol is a steroid. Like other steroids, it can produce a benefit from inhibiting certain body responses, but it comes with a cost. Increased cortisol levels are associated with lowered immune system efficiency, decreased libido and accumulation of belly fat. Lovely. By the way, you may have noticed that cortisone, as in cortisone injections, sounds very similar. And, it has similar effects.
Our daily lives are filled with stress. Unexpected stress that we are not used to handling makes our bodies start pumping cortisol into the bloodstream by the shovelful. However, after we become accustomed to stress that is part of our routine, cortisol production is decreased. That is why an military pilot can handle the stress of landing on an aircraft carrier at night (over and over and over again), which is something that would make most people paralyzed with fear.
Research has also shown the same to be true with exercise. I found a great article that addressed this on livestrong.com. Cortisol levels will be elevated in response to new stress on the body. The first time you attempt a 3 mile run, you can expect a hormone party. Once you can easily do 8 miles, the shorter run has almost no effect on producing cortisol.
Interestingly, the benefits from managing cortisol production through exercise seems to have an effect on keeping hormone levels lower during times of emotional upheaval.
Rest when your body needs it. However, your mind may need to go for a run.