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Cut that Cortisol: Staying Active to Manage Stress

April 17, 2024

By: Emily DeWalt, Prevention Specialist

Physical activity is the act of moving in a way that contracts your muscles to expend energy. It can range anywhere from planned, structured exercise to sporadic household chores or a game of pick-up basketball. One of the best things we can do to manage our stress is to stay physically active. The CDC states that physical activity can lessen symptoms of stress, such as anxiety, even in the short-term. Keeping the body moving benefits all systems of the body, and can have a dramatic effect on your mood and feelings of stress. Luckily, there are countless ways to fit physical activity into even the busiest of our days.

The CDC recommends that adults receive 150 minutes of physical activity each week. That number may sound daunting, but keep in mind that walking the dog, taking the stairs or vacuuming your home all count! It’s up to you to decide how you want to break down those 150 minutes. Maybe taking five 30-minute walks each week works for you, or going on three 50-minute bike rides works better. These are both great examples of aerobic exercise. However, the CDC also recommends incorporating muscle-strengthening activities into those weekly 150 minutes of physical activity. Muscle-strengthening activities can range anywhere from lifting weights, power yoga, or floor exercises using your body weight as resistance. Even if you don’t quite meet the full 150 minute recommendation each week,  your mind and body will still reap the benefits of any physical activity.

This is all helpful to know, but how exactly can this help with feelings of stress? In short, exercise reduces the body’s stress hormone cortisol, which could lead to problems such as high blood pressure, digestive issues, and low mood when levels are too high. As cortisol levels drop, these issues will improve. Additionally, exercise stimulates the production of endorphins, which can help elevate your mood and act as a natural painkiller. If you stay sedentary for too long, those levels of cortisol could creep back up, especially if you are dealing with external stressors on a day to day basis.

It can be challenging to find time or space to exercise. Fortunately, there are other ways to reduce stress that also involve moving your body (but perhaps to a lesser degree). Breathing exercises have shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and promote feelings of calm and relaxation. There are a number of ways to go about practicing a breathing exercise, and some may work better for you than others. Consider the following techniques when you feel the need to calm down the mind and body:

  • Deep Breathing – Breath in slow and deep while pushing your stomach out (this requires your diaphragm to kick in). Hold for 3 seconds. Slowly exhale. Repeat at least 5 times, and say the words inhale, exhale and hold in your mind for each step.

  • Box Breathing – Inhale to the count of 1-2-3-4, Hold breath for 1-2-3-4, Exhale 1-2-3-4, and Hold 1-2-3-4. Repeat at least 5 times or until you start to feel better.

  • Blowing through a straw – Breath in slow and deep for 5 seconds. Hold for 3 seconds. Slowly breath out as if you’re blowing through a straw. Repeat at least 5 times or until you start to feel better.

  • Meditation – This activity is the most challenging of the breathing exercises. Inhale for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, and repeat. Try to quiet all thoughts in your mind and sensations you are feeling. Imagine a one word mantra or object in your mind to put your total focus on. Continue to breathe, 4 in and 4 out. Consider setting a 10-20 minute alarm for your meditation practice.

What if you have some time and some space? There are many ways to get creative in order to get that physical activity in. If you use a streaming app that has commercials, or listen to podcasts with ads, try filling in that time with floor exercises or jumping jacks. Perhaps you’re open to installing a pull-up bar in a doorway where you establish a “pull-up bar tax”-  you can only enter or exit by doing a handful of pull-ups first. And why not make physical activity fun! You can join friends or family for a game of bowling, axe throwing, batting cages or even a rage room (especially if you’re feeling super stressed!) Point is, there really is no excuse not to incorporate physical activity in each day. If you still see yourself having too many obstacles in the way of staying active, check out the CDC’s page “Getting Started with Physical Activity” which includes a chart of possible obstacles in your way and how to overcome them.

Thank you so much for reading! We hope you find this information helpful and please remember to check out next week’s blog. 😊


1.      Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2024). How much physical activity do adults need? Last viewed April 17, 2024. Available at:

2.      Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2024). Benefits of Physical Activity. Last viewed April 17, 2024. Available at:

3.      Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School (2020). How does exercise reduce stress? Surprising answers to this question and more. Last viewed April 17, 2024. Available at:,natural%20painkillers%20and%20mood%20elevators

4.      NerdFitness (2023). 40 Fun Ways to Exercise (Without Realizing It). Last viewed: April 17, 2024. Available at:



1.      Hydroxycut (2023). Woman tying shoes with weights and yoga mat. Last viewed April 17, 2024. Available at:

2.      Freepik (2024). Cortisol and its impact on the body. . Last viewed April 17, 2024. Available at:

3.      Biltmore Psychology and Counseling (2020). Man meditating on the beach. . Last viewed April 17, 2024. Available at:

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I really love the idea of the pull up tax! Great way to burn calories all day!

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