The Truth Behind Why Your HIIT Workouts May Not be Working

Was Elle Woods right? Are endorphins really making us happy?

By: Audrey Swanson

We all know exercise releases the feel-good hormones called endorphins. A good, sweaty session of cardio, weightlifting, or your movement of choice can leave you feeling like a brand new person: energized, refreshed, and glowing. Per the cinematic treasure, Legally Blonde, “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands! They just don’t.”

There you have it-exercise can be a wonderful release of anxiety and pent up stress (and not shooting people.) Perfect! But in truth, if you exercise, you’ve probably experienced these super-cool effects of the amazing endorphin release. It’s one of the best feelings in the world, and why so many of us push through tough workouts.

Those who are fans of regular high-intensity interval training (HIIT) or other explosive, quick-paced exercise, however, might have felt a lull in energy or experienced a plateau in results. This may be especially true if you are prone to anxiety, stress, or have a hormonal imbalance. People dealing with any of these factors, who do several HIIT-style workouts on a weekly basis, could actually be putting more stress on their body, (um, no thanks!) This is the last thing we want. We want our exercise to be a source of stress reduction that reduces the burden on our bodies both physically and mentally.

So, how do we find that delicate balance?

Finding Balance Between Exercise and Stress Hormones

Say what? How could this happen? High-intensity training (think: a CrossFit class or difficult cardio intervals with only brief rest breaks) usually fits a calorie-squelching, fat-burning workout into a small time block (about 20 to 45 minutes.) People enjoy these workouts because they’re powerful and usually very time-efficient. It eliminates that wandering-around-the-gym-aimlessly feeling and gets you in and out quickly.

And for many people, HIIT workouts are an incredible way to get a major burn in-and fast! However, high-intensity workouts can release another kind of hormone called cortisol that could lead to negative results. This hormone controls how the body responds to stressors and manages our fight or flight responses.

If your hormones are fairly well balanced and you do HIIT workouts once or twice a week, your body only registers a small amount of cortisol, which won’t have lasting effects. You’ll still experience that energized feeling after workouts, and in general, you’ll feel alert, yet calm, throughout your day.

But if you deal with anxiety or any type of hormonal imbalance, and you work out intensely most days of the week, your cortisol levels will stay spiked. What does this mean?

With continuously elevated cortisol levels, your body will constantly feel the need to protect itself from outside stressors, including workouts that get your heart-rate elevated.

The way your body deals with the stress is different for everyone, but some common side effects include:

  • Fatigue
  • Increased appetite
  • Inability to lose or keep off weight
  • Increased inflammation
  • Digestive health issues
  • Burnout

The Lasting Implications of Cortisol on Your Workout Routine

For some people, this news could seem like a huge bummer. You may have experienced incredible results with HIIT workouts at first, before plateauing and eventually backsliding. Or maybe your schedule only allows for quick sweat sessions, and high-intensity exercise seems like the only way to fit in an effective workout.

It’s understandable that shifting to gentler forms of exercise a few days a week might seem counterintuitive. But actually, it could lead to greater results-for both mind and body. Evaluate the reasons WHY you’re working out…If it’s to release stress and maintain your long-term health, then the best move to achieve these goals would be to adjust your exercise so that you feel good during, and after your workouts.

The Bottom Line

No matter the state of your hormonal health and stress levels, an assortment of exercise routines is always a good idea to avoid muscle memory or injury. So, mix it up! Play with yoga, hiking, Pilates, or low-intensity weightlifting sprinkled throughout your HIIT-workout days.And for a variety of workout programs available anywhere, anytime, download FitOn, an app that allows you to take virtual fitness classes with world-class trainers anywhere and at any time. Our classes are always open. Take our free 7-day trial for a test run today!