Exercising with adrenal fatigue can be tricky, but before I delve further into that subject, let me give you some background: I will try to make this short because you have better things to do than become acquainted with my life story.
I must preface: I am not a physician. While I was a personal fitness coach at one point, I never practiced as one. What I will share below is my story and the lessons I personally learned from it. **this is in no way medical advice and it should not be taken as such.
Back in 2011-2012, if you’d asked if I was healthy I would have said yes! I was in my early 40s. I worked out regularly with programs such as P90x, and in three months I had gone from never running–to doing a half marathon. I was fit! I was the definition of healthy…right?
I was not healthy but didn’t know it.
Did I have symptoms?
In hindsight, yes I did: low blood pressure, low body temperature, and being cold much of the time. I shucked that to “just being me” since these were issues I had had for years. I was still able to function, so no problem. Or so I wrongly assumed.
My body was talking but I wasn’t listening.
After running the half marathon in March of 2012, I started having some physical issues; pains here and there. Then I tore a muscle in my calf while working out and I was unable to exercise while it healed. Upon resuming exercise, I realized I tired easily and got winded pretty quickly. I was often dizzy, which increased in frequency over time (due to low blood pressure).
Things came to a head in the Spring of 2014 after a bike ride with my husband. We were in a grocery store when – as a fluke – I decided to take my blood pressure: 56/78. Okay, I knew I had low blood pressure but even for me, this was extreme.
There was more: I was just “blah” all the time. I was not myself anymore and everyone noticed. This may sound cliche’ but even smiling was tiring. Everything was a chore. I had an overwhelming sense of not feeling right in my own skin.
I decided to see a naturopath who, after sending me to donate what seems to me a huge amount of blood (and for someone who hates needles this was not easy) and running various tests, promptly diagnosed me with hypothyroidism due to extreme adrenal fatigue.
Adrenal fatigue had been mentioned before; back in 2000. I was under enormous stress after the passing of my daughter, but the diagnosis didn’t mean much to me at the time except that I was tired. Of course I was tired, as well as stressed and grieving. Normal reactions under the circumstances if you ask me. The issues would pass in time (or so I thought). Ha! What a joke.
Fourteen years later, my adrenals had not miraculously healed, my thyroid was affected, and I was put on natural thyroid supplementation. I felt better pretty quickly and I had more energy. However, any form of exercise still had me tuckered. I had to take long naps. Going on a walk three days in a row for a measly 2.5 miles had me in bed! Eventually, I just gave up on exercise.
I told my naturopath that my ultimate goal was to heal and to be off the natural thyroid meds. She said it was possible but would take time. I saw another practitioner as well, and got to feeling better; but still could not exercise without having setbacks.
This is when I decided to really take my power back. Up to this point, I had gone to someone and said “tell me what is wrong with me and fix it.” I decided my new way to view life was going to be “I may need your help to diagnose what is happening but I take the responsibility to heal me.”
By December 2015, still not exercising at all, I was off my natural thyroid supplementation.
During the summer of 2016, I decided I was well enough to start slowly incorporating exercise into my life again. I started with light walking.
Exercise and Cortisol
Let’s take a slight detour and talk about cortisol for a moment.
Cortisol – a glucocorticoid also known as hydrocortisone – is often referred to as the “stress hormone.”
Cortisol is manufactured by the adrenal glands and its production is controlled by the HPA axis (hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and the adrenals). Almost all our organs contain cortisol receptors; which means cortisol affects many bodily functions. For example, cortisol has an effect on blood sugar levels, blood pressure, metabolism, bone density, and inflammation – just to name a few.
To the body, there is not good stress and bad stress, joyful events as well as sad events can all activate the stress response. Stress in itself is not “bad”. Stress only becomes an issue when it is recurring and/or constant.
On one hand, exercise – the right form, timing, and intensity – will increase the threshold of cortisol release over time. On the other hand, exercise – especially intense exercise – increases cortisol levels. This means that in individuals who have adrenal issues, exercise may be counterproductive (as I discovered).
On a side note, there are four stages to adrenal fatigue: 1 being the mildest form and stage 4 being the most extreme. Knowing where you stand on the spectrum may help you make more informed decision about daily stressors (and this includes exercise) and your overall plan to heal.
Exercising with Adrenal Fatigue: My Plan
I learned to listen to my body’s cues and to stop and rest when I needed to; even if that meant I did not exercise for a few days.
After light walking, I added Qi Gong to my regimen. I started with Seven Minutes of Magic, a video I found for free here. I then purchased Qi Gong for Stress as well as Qi Gong Flow for Beginners. I love Lee Holden. He’s not too “out there” for me. He is clear, calm, and professional. The DVDs are filmed in beautiful calming surroundings and their quality is excellent. I highly recommend them.
When I felt stronger, in July, I started a regular work-out routine by purchasing Dr. Lam’s Adrenal Yoga DVDs.
What I liked about the DVDs:
- They are geared to people with adrenal fatigue.
- Dr. Lam begins by teaching how to breathe properly which is the cornerstone of healing.
- The DVDs are incremental. Each lesson builds on the previous one. They start at about 30 minutes and go to over 60 minutes.
- Doctor Lam teaches that if a lesson becomes too hard, you then stay at the previous one until your body is ready to proceed.
- Dr. Lam’s instructions and clues are clear despite his accent which was not an issue for me at all.
What I did not like about the DVDs:
- The sound stinks. You hear the ocean (which is good) and the wind (not so good) as Dr. Lam speaks and give directions over the constant background noise.
Despite the poor sound quality, Adrenal Yoga was amazingly healing to me and the spearhead to start exercising again.
Go to Part II.
Sources for Exercising with Adrenal Fatigue:
- What Does Cortisol Do?
- Adaptation of the hypothalamopituitary adrenal axis to chronic exercise stress in humans.
- Acute Hypothalamic–Pituitary–Adrenal Responses to the Stress of Treadmill Exercise
- Mind And Body
- Why You May Need To Exercise Less
- Adrenal Fatigue and Over Exercising- Part 1
- Adrenal Fatigue and Over Exercising- Part 2
- Adrenal Fatigue and Over Exercising- Part 3