should I work out or rest when stressed?


When to Workout or Rest for Optimal Cortisol Levels

Should I workout if I'm tired or stressed? Learn when to prioritize movement vs. stillness in this article.

When you're stressed, it can often feel amazing to release that stress by breaking a sweat with a workout. There's plenty of research backing up why exercise is great for managing and reducing stress.

At the same time, certain kinds of exercise can cause even more stress when you are already exhausted, burnt out, anxious or stressed. The cortisol imbalance created by excessive training and inadequate recovery is called "Overtraining Syndrome."

So how do you know when you exercise vs. when to rest?

In this article we'll share tips on how to determine if you should workout or rest when you are stressed, and what types of exercise can be helpful when you're stressed.

How exercise affects your cortisol levels 

Cortisol usually gets a bad rap because it's known as your "stress hormone." But cortisol and stress aren't all bad! It seems counterintuitive, but regular exercise actually helps manage stress because it forces a spike in cortisol.

Ideally this spike is short-lived, and cortisol levels come back to homeostasis after the workout. This cycle can help your body handle cortisol more efficiently. 

Exercise also promotes the release of feel-good brain chemicals like serotonin, dopamine and endorphines (ever hear of the "runners high"?). 

The problem is, many of us are under chronic stress, which means chronically high cortisol levels. 

In order for the spike in cortisol from exercise to be beneficial for your health, there also needs to be a period of rest and recovery. 

That is the goal with a workout – to place a stress on the body and then allow it to rest and recover so it can repair and come back stronger, leaner, faster, etc.  If you cannot give your body the time and resources (nutrients) to adapt and recover, it will not acquire these benefits.

So if you are already feeling burnt out, exhausted and stressed from lack of sleep, lack of sufficient nutrients from your diet, and work or personal life stressors, a high intensity workout can be counterproductive.

Striking a balance

If you're wondering whether it would be more beneficial for you to workout or to rest to support your mental health, here are 6 questions to ask yourself. 

1. Will working out add additional stress to my life?

For example, if you have a big project due at work tomorrow and you have not started, and you think working out will only make you feel more anxious and overwhelmed, it may be better to skip it (and take a Mood Chew instead!).

2. How do I feel after I workout?  Does it make me feel tired or energetic?

A good rule of thumb is that workouts should leave you feeling more energetic than when you first walked into the gym, not totally drained. If your workouts are leaving you exhausted, see how you can dial down the intensity or opt for a more restorative exercise.

3. Do I have the time and resources for recovery?

We've all heard the phrase "no pain, no gain." But what would be more accurate to say, albeit less catchy, is "no rest, no gain." If you're going to do an intense or moderate workout, can you take the time to refuel with a nutritious meal, and get a good night's sleep? If not, it may be best to choose rest.

Mood Magnesium can help you get a good night's sleep and reduce stress!

4. Will I be glad I overcame the resistance and did the workout or will I regret it?

This one can be hard to predict--sometimes you don't know until you do it and find out. But see if you can remember a time when you were in a similar position...what choice did you make, and how did it feel afterwards? 

If you think you could benefit from the workout but just need an extra boost of energy, take an Attention Chew instead of drinking caffeine. Attention Chews are packed with energy-boosting amino acids and nutrients that won't raise your cortisol levels even further, like caffeine.

5. What's the real reason why I'm tired?

If you're not getting enough sleep, it would be better for now to prioritize getting better sleep. But if you're already getting enough sleep and still tired, it could be due to lack of movement, and you may feel better after exercise.

What other kinds of movement can I do?

You don't have to stick to the workout plan you or a trainer originally laid out for you if your body or mind aren't feeling up to it that day. 

Be flexible and open to other types of movement that won't spike your cortisol. 

Rather than high intensity exercise like HIIT, running, cross-fit, or biking, opt for a walk, low intensity strength training, or yin yoga.

Again, remember, exhaustion and being drenched in sweat does not necessarily equal a successful workout. The goal of movement is to make you feel better, not worse.

Another tip is to simply commit to doing your warm up. If you start to feel better after doing just a warm up, proceed with the workout and continue checking in on how you feel. If you start to feel like you're pushing past your limits at any point, than stop.


At the end of the day- listen to YOUR intuition and what your body is telling you. What works in one person's body may not work for yours. Also, what works in your body one day may not work in your body another day. Check in with yourself and ask what would feel good and most supportive for you in this moment.

Join Us Tuesday May 28th in Venice CA!

Join us for an inspiring and informative panel discussion in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, hosted by Still Life in partnership with Prepare Your Mind (PYM). This special event will feature Henry Mitchell, Cofounder of Still Life; Zak Williams, Cofounder of PYM; Dr. Miranda Boe, PsyD, Educational Psychologist and Founder of The Breathing Room; and DeAndre Sinette (@mindfuldeandre), Yoga Instructor and Mindfulness Advocate.

Date: Tuesday, May 28th
Time: 6:00pm - 8:00pm
Location: Still Life, 1041 Abbot Kinney Blvd Venice CA 90291