Why Do Some Women Get Better Results with Low-Intensity Exercise?

Oct 18, 2022 16:55:18PM

If you’re trying to lose weight, you’ve probably heard that exhausting yourself with intense exercise sessions and restricting your food intake is the only way to go. 

What if all of that hard work is having the opposite effect on your body? If you’re wondering why conventional methods aren’t working for you, you aren’t alone. 

All of the blood, sweat, and tears could be signaling to your body to hold onto fat, not let go of it.

Here’s what you should know.

The Good and Bad Sides of High-Intensity Workouts

High-intensity workouts have their benefits. They burn more calories, and keep your metabolic rate elevated for hours after you work out. As a result, you might lose fat and possibly gain muscle. But, everyone lives in a different body, and for some people, intense workouts have major downsides. Let’s talk about them. 

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High-Intensity Workouts May Increase Cortisol Production

When you exercise at high-intensity levels, your body might kick into fight or flight, as if you’re in trouble. For some people, especially women, intense exercise can release cortisol into your system, which signals the release of glucose (blood sugar) into the bloodstream. 

This is useful if you’re in danger because it gives you a sure of energy to fight, flee, or strategize ways to get out of a bad situation. But if it happens too often, your blood sugar could go high too often, and chronically elevated blood sugar spells trouble. 

On top of that, frequent release of cortisol can signal to your body to store fat, especially in the abdominal area. These aren’t the signals that you want to send if you’re trying to drop excess weight. 

If your cortisol levels increase too much, your body may produce less testosterone, leading to issues like weight gain, especially in the abdomen. Interfering with testosterone levels isn’t just a problem for men. Women need it too—in smaller amounts, but it’s still vital for several body functions. 

Cortisol is particularly touchy in women, especially women in perimenopause, which can start as early as the 30s and 40s. That’s because the glands that produce cortisol take over some of the cyclical hormone production as the ovaries slow down. 

Excessive Exercise can Disrupt Your Metabolism

Have you ever heard that you build strength during recovery from a workout, not during the actual workout? With too little rest between intense workouts, your body doesn’t have time to carry out those crucial recovery processes. As a result, your mitochondria cells don’t produce adequate energy

This could harm your body’s metabolism, signaling for your metabolism to slow down to conserve energy, versus optimizing it for weight loss. 

Intense Exercise May Disrupt your Sleep

Your body recovers during sleep. This is when your body does its most important work. However, intense workouts, especially close to bedtime, can cause sleep disruptions because of the elevated adrenal hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, and have the following effects:

  • Increased appetite
  • Slower metabolism
  • Faster weight gain

When you’re trying to make a change, you don’t want these things working against you. 

How Low-Intensity Exercise Helps you Lose Weight

Low-intensity workouts include low-impact cardio, bodyweight work, and resistance training. Think yoga, pilates, walking, weight lifting, resistance band exercises, and body resistance exercises can help you lose weight, sometimes faster than high-intensity workouts if excess cortisol was holding you back.

Cardio helps you burn calories, but you have to consume fewer calories than you burn to lose weight. Also, as discussed above, too much cardio can negatively affect your body. Lighter cardio or interval training can get your heart rate up without pushing yourself into the danger zone. 

Strength training burns calories and builds muscle. The greater your muscle mass is, the more calories you’ll regularly burn without taxing your body with heavy cardio exercises.

Examples of Low-Intensity Exercises to Lose Weight

You can include cardio in your low-intensity workouts, but not high-intensity cardio. Consider exercises such as walking, swimming, or a fun dance class. You can also incorporate playful activities like stand-up paddleboarding, hiking, and the rowing machine.

Almost everyone can benefit from body weight or weight lifting exercises. For the best results, alternate your cardio days with strength training days or do small amounts of both on the same day.

The key is not to exhaust your body so much that it goes into panic mode. Instead, take it slow and steady, walking and weight lifting, or walking and doing pilates or yoga. If you do something high intensity, such as spin biking or running, do it for a short time, and balance it with a lower intensity workout.

Final Thoughts

Exercise is the key to optimal health, not just weight loss, but there is such as thing as too much of a good thing.

Don’t overtax your body and expect to lose weight. Chances are that you’ll gain weight instead. Instead, find movement that feels good to your body but doesn’t make your joints ache, your heart pump faster than it should, and disrupt your sleep.

Burning more calories than you take in doesn’t mean working your body so hard that it goes into panic mode and holds onto fat. Instead, find a good balance by paying attention to how your body feels. You’ll know what feels right, and then you’ll watch the pounds come off like you hoped.


  1. Falcone PH, Tai CY, Carson LR, et al. Caloric expenditure of aerobic, resistance, or combined high-intensity interval training using a hydraulic resistance system in healthy men. J Strength Cond Res. 2015;29(3):779-785. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000000661
  2. Thau L, Gandhi J, Sharma S. Physiology, Cortisol. [Updated 2021 Sep 6]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538239/
  3. Stress effects on the body. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/topics/stress/body. Accessed October 5, 2022. 
  4. Flockhart M, Nilsson LC, Tais S, Ekblom B, Apró W, Larsen FJ. Excessive exercise training causes mitochondrial functional impairment and decreases glucose tolerance in healthy volunteers. Cell Metabolism. 2021;33(5). doi:10.1016/j.cmet.2021.02.017 
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1 comment

Very interesting about cortisol. I also learned about the balance between low/high intensity levels. Thanks.

Janice Hull

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