Does intense exercise increase cortisol levels, and should we avoid it (especially in peri or post-menopause)?

by | Mar 22, 2024 | 1 comment


As I was scrolling through my social media feed today, I saw a post from a popular fitness expert who was saying that women should never do cardio, especially HIIT, because it raises cortisol levels which can stall weight loss or even worse, increase belly fat storage.

Then, only a few seconds later, I came across a post from another expert who said women should only be doing HIIT for cardio and avoiding longer duration moderate intensity workouts completely.

Talk about confusing and conflicting information! Even worse, if you Google it in an attempt to find more reputable information, you are bound to get a mix of answers, one often contradicting the last.

So, is there any truth to it? Does exercise increase cortisol levels, and should we be worried about avoiding higher-intensity exercise (especially during times when we may already have higher levels of cortisol, such as during peri- or post-menopause)?


[Long post alert – if you need to skim this one just jump ahead to the bolded text for the main points + info!]


The short answer? Yes, moderate to high-intensity exercise raises cortisol levels (though lower intensity, yoga, or mobility-type movement does not seem to), and it’s supposed to – this increase in cortisol production is “critical to the control and regulation of energy metabolism and thus exercise performance capacity.” 

Cortisol is our stress response hormone, and it plays an essential regulatory role in metabolic response to exercise. Cortisol also aids in recovery from exercise as it helps regulate protein turnover, which is vital for our muscles to change and adapt from our training.

In short, most forms of exercise cause stress to the body, and our body responds by elevating the levels of our stress hormone cortisol to aid in overcoming this ‘stress’ which is how we improve our strength and fitness.

The good news is that increased cortisol levels are a normal and expected response to exercise, and you don’t need to worry about it being deleterious to your health* (*unless you are overdoing it!), even during peri or post-menopause.


One of my favorite fitness researchers, Dr. Stacy Sims, explains in this article hereWhile high-intensity exercise elicits a “significant decrease in cortisol within two hours,” resulting in lower cortisol in the long term, Sims says cortisol levels can stay elevated for up to 24 hours following a session of moderate-intensity exercise. “I can’t count how many women [I know] who feel like they have to hammer themselves in every workout.” And without adequate rest and recovery, she says stress levels can remain elevated in the body, putting it into survival mode, and leading to inflammation and fat conservation.

The two key points she makes here that I think are really important are that: 1) we want to avoid overtraining (even too much moderate intensity exercise can be too much, so don’t try to double up on moderate cardio to make up for not doing H.I.I.T.!) and that 2) we need to allow for adequate rest and recovery (a key reason we include our mobilityL.I.S.S. – which stands for lower intensity, steady-state – and recovery sessions in our programming).

Dr. Sims recommends a balanced program that includes a solid amount of resistance training and a mix of training of various intensities, including interval and mobility work (just like the lineup you will see in our “Your Best Year Yet” series).


But what about during peri or post-menopause? 

In this article here, menopause expert Dr. Marie Claire Haver agrees that exercise can raise cortisol and that it’s not a bad thing. She notes: “When we exercise, especially when we do cardio or H.I.I.T. (High Intensity Interval Training) training, we have a bump in our cortisol with exercise; that’s normal. That is a stress releasing hormone because, when we’re exercising our muscles, we’re stressing them out so that they become stronger in the long run. So, we see an initial bump in cortisol – fine – but it immediately comes down when you’re done exercising and then stays much lower throughout the day, had it been if you’ve never exercised and it’s that baseline cortisol, those levels that we’re trying to decrease over time.”

One of the biggest lessons I have learned from Dr. Haver is that as estrogen levels decline in peri and post menopause, we may be more likely to feel joint pain more fatigue and may have trouble recovering more quickly, which is why it’s super important to build in enough recovery time and avoid intensity (or duration) that drains you and leaves you with zero energy for the rest of the day (or week). Dr. Haver also recommends including a balanced mix of strength, cardio, balance, and stretching exercises during peri and post-menopause.

While those are just two experts’ opinions that I agree with on this subject, I think the most important caveat to this information is that the best expert on what you should be doing with your workouts will always be YOU.


So what type of exercise should you be doing?

My answer to this one is that it depends, on YOU. How does higher-intensity work feel to you? Does it challenge you but then allow you to feel energized after you have finished your session (and the next day)? If so, try adding interval training once or twice per week on your cardio days.

On the other hand, if it completely wipes you out for the day (or even a few days after), now may not be the best season for you to be doing H.I.I.T. Even if the intensity isn’t bad for your body in terms of cortisol, if you are going through a season where you are already stressed, not sleeping or fueling well, or otherwise already depleted, interval work probably isn’t the best course of action for you.

I always recommend experimenting with various routines and mixes to find what feels and works best for you right now, but my top suggestion for peri and post (and all women in general!) is strength training. Muscle becomes even more important for women during the peri and postmenopausal years as declining estrogen levels can put us at risk for metabolic health issues such as obesity, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s dementia.

Strength training is doubly important for women over the age of 35, when our muscle and strength begins to annually decline (we go into more depth on this within our STRENGTHEN series in our “Your Best Year Yet” program, which also includes more focused muscle building work, along with a mix of cardio and mobility sessions, too). 

Focus primarily on strength training (aiming for 2-3 sessions per week, if possible, though 1-2 full body sessions are an excellent start!) and include your cardio and recovery type sessions in between (if desired). If you find your body feeling more fatigued or need more recovery time, you may want to sprinkle in some of our L.I.S.S. (lower intensity, steady state) cardio sessions and some of our “Recovery” Collection sessions here to add some gentle movement while allowing for adequate recovery time between your lifting sessions.

And please don’t be afraid to change things as you go along. Just because you were doing something a few years (or even months) ago that worked well for you does not mean you should continue doing it if it no longer serves you.

We are all different, dealing with different needs, schedules, and life changes, so it’s important to focus on what works best for you. Know that what used to be the right fit for you may now need to be adjusted as you go, and that is not only OK, but to be expected.

Here’s to working with, not against, our body!


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1 Comment

  1. Susanna

    Once again an excellent and informative article! Thanks, Jessica!


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