I am not a doctor or licensed nutritionist. I’ve written these articles based on personal experience, research, and general education. Always discuss diet changes with your doctor first and research, research, research. See my disclaimer here.
When starting a new diet plan, many people also incorporate a fitness routine in order to speed up weight loss and gain a well-rounded physique. Just a quick scan of Facebook groups and Instagram tags tells me that this is no different for the keto diet. Danger occurs, however, when over-ambitious newbies try to do too much too fast without balance. While some exercise on a keto diet is important for a healthy cardiovascular and muscular system, it’s even more important to balance that energy output with substantial recharge.
You may have heard that the keto diet can help with your energy levels and blood sugar, but those issues will never be resolved if you don’t understand the importance of rest and recovery.
Cortisol is the “stress hormone” that your kidneys produce to help your body regulate things like blood pressure, blood sugar, circadian rhythm, inflammation, and macro-nutrient use.
Cortisol is not innately bad. It’s a hormone that you need in order to survive. The issue with cortisol happens when you’re moderately to highly stressed out all of the time.
When you’re incredibly stressed (think fight-or-flight adrenaline mode), your body’s cortisol receptors make the decision to shut down certain bodily functions in order to survive.
“Shut downs” look like…
- An interruption in your menstrual cycle because of too many high-intensity workouts without rest
- Catching a cold when you’ve been really pushing yourself and haven’t gotten enough sleep
- Stomach cramps/diarrhea during especially emotional points in your life
Another issue arises if you’re moderately stressed all of the time. For example, working a high-intensity job that has many safety regulations and requires you to be on high alert at all times will result in residual stress, even off the clock. This causes your body to always feel like it needs to be on high-alert in order to survive. People who suffer from non-stop stress may end up with anxiety, depression, heart disease, memory problems, insomnia, and/or weight gain.
I don’t know about you, but I get stressed out just thinking about that!
How do we normalize our cortisol levels?
Cortisol is resolved when you get rest. This means that you need to sleep, or at the very least, find a way to relax in order for your levels to reduce. In the same way that an ocean ebbs and flows, your body needs your stress levels to recede after they spike. Relaxation may include actually laying in bed, but it may also look like…
- Getting a massage
- Going to a movie
- Going to the beach with friends
- Spending time with a loved one (yes, pets count!)
- Swimming a lap
- Playing a sport
- Shopping for fun (hello, retail therapy, anyone?)
Let’s take it a step further.
Satisfying your needs
Let’s check out Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs really quick. (below)
We use Maslow’s model in the psychology world to understand why others act the way they do. Typically, people who have not fulfilled their basic needs are in “fight-or-flight” mode all the time. They’re stressed, anxious, and sleep-deprived. They’re more likely to suffer from chronic illness.
As we fulfill those most basic needs, we become more motivated toward self-actualization. Once your physiological and safety needs are met, you’re more likely to look for the top 3 need categories and you’re more likely to relax. If you didn’t have food, water, shelter, employment, or health, I imagine it would be very hard to sleep because you’d be too stressed to relax.
I view this pyramid not only in order of priority (bottom most necessary, top least necessary), but also in amount of time/energy spent on these things. Once those basic needs are met, you have the freedom to focus less time and energy on each of the succeeding tasks at hand.
At first, keto will be stressful for your body. The dramatic decrease in carbs intake will trigger your adrenal glands to release lots of cortisol. This will only happen while you’re transitioning to ketosis. Once your body gets used to burning ketones for fuel rather than carbohydrates, your cortisol will drop.
The other benefits of a keto diet will also help your cortisol levels to shrink. Weight loss and inflammation reduction have been my two favorite results of the cortisol drop I experienced. Also, the mysterious digestion issues I had flat out stopped when I started keto. Coincidence? Maybe. I never paid to go to a gastroenterologist when I had issues. But it does seem suspicious that my issues stopped when I started keto. So, how does keto work?
I like to explain keto to newbies like this:
Think of your body burning energy like a campfire. On a standard carbohydrate-based diet, you’re mainly feeding your body carbohydrates, which are quickly burned until your body demands that it wants more (hunger). Carbs burn through your body like twigs and paper on a fire. Fat, however, burns for much longer, and much more evenly. Your body also likely contains fat stores that it can pull “stored energy” from whenever the amount you’ve fed your stomach runs low. Therefore, fat burns slowly and reliably, like a larger log on a campfire.Campfire analogy
If you live in a moderate-to-high state of stress all the time, you may experience some relief from the side effects of high cortisol (just like I did!) if you try the keto diet. If you need help getting started, check out my eBook for all of the information you need to get going!
What happens if I exercise without enough sleep?
Exercise on a keto diet without enough sleep will never pay off. While you may make forward progress at first (weight loss, if that’s your goal), you will experience regression in your efforts from burnout and exhaustion.
Remember when we talked about how high cortisol levels can cause shut-downs? If you spend too much time in the gym or are performing HIIT exercises too frequently, your body will decide that it’s too stressed and your immune system will shut down.
So how on earth do we get our cortisol to cool it but still work out?
Safe exercise on a keto diet
I don’t write all of this to say that you should never exercise on a keto diet. You absolutely can work out on keto, and I think you should. But you need to do it in such a manner that will set you up for success. Think of it as similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but we’ll call this the RKF Wellness Model. In this case, the most important items are at the top.
Here’s how to do it.
- Satisfy your first two needs from Maslow’s hierarchy.
- Sleep at least 8 hours. If you work a high intensity job, you may need more sleep. Using a smart watch or an app like Sleep Cycle may help.
- Make sure you’re following a guided macro-based keto diet. For some, this may include using an app like Carb Counter for help. For others, keeping mental note of your macronutrients or writing in a journal may help.
- Drink enough water.
- Electrolytes, electrolytes, electrolytes. Learn more here.
- Nurture your personal relationships and find a keto buddy. They’ll help you feel less isolated. They may be in person or on the internet (Instagram and Reddit are great for this!)
- Get educated. On keto, on academia, on current events, and on memes.
- Develop a hobby that’s NOT keto related. Get outside of the house and do that thing.
- Walk every other day. Use a fitness watch or pedometer to set and reach step goals.
- ONLY WHEN YOU’VE DONE THESE OTHER THINGS: Develop a low-impact workout plan that you can slowly incorporate into your daily routine.
- AFTER YOU’VE SUCCESSFULLY COMPLETED THE LAST STEP: Add in higher intensity workouts twice a week MAX.
So, when comparing this to the analysis of the hierarchy of needs, we know that the most important needs come first, but also that the succession requires us to spend less time and energy on each new need. Therefore, you need to focus on sleep much more than exercise on a keto diet.
So, did you learn something today? Do you agree, or have a different opinion? Let me know in the comments below!