Is Overtraining Hurting Weight Loss? Optimise Cortisol for Better Results

Welcome to "Is Overtraining Hurting Weight Loss? Optimise Cortisol for Better Results." This article is specifically crafted for women over 50, but the insights can benefit anyone passionate about exercise and weight management.

Older woman exercising in her home

As we reach our 50s and beyond, the role of exercise becomes more crucial than ever.

Our bodies go through significant changes during menopause, which can make staying fit and losing weight feel more challenging.

Exercise is essential not only for maintaining heart health and muscle strength but also for managing the stubborn belly fat that many of us start to notice around this time.

We exercise to look good, feel good, and keep our bodies in top shape, often exploring various workouts from aerobics and dance classes to Pilates and weight lifting.

Alongside a consistent exercise routine, many of us become more focused on our diets. You might have adopted the Mediterranean diet, choosing a plant-based lifestyle, or simply become more mindful of your food choices.

As the saying goes, "You are what you eat," and we know that a balanced diet is vital for overall health and weight management.

Yet despite our best efforts in both exercise and diet, we might find that stubborn belly fat refuses to budge.

Is Overtraining Hurting Weight Loss? Optimise Cortisol for Better Results

We might be hitting the gym regularly, walking those 10,000 steps a day, or pushing ourselves through intense workout sessions, but the results we hope for seem elusive.

What could be causing this struggle? One significant factor might be cortisol, a stress hormone that is closely linked to our exercise routines and weight loss efforts.

While exercise naturally increases cortisol levels, too much exercise can lead to an imbalance that hinders weight loss and contributes to stubborn belly fat. We need to balance and optimise cortisol levels.

Exercise and Weight Loss

Exercise alone won't make you lose weight! A healthy, balanced nutritional diet with a calorie deficit will. Combining both exercise and a balanced diet is the most effective approach to achieving and maintaining weight loss.

Exercise keeps you fit, maintains joint health, improves heart and bone health, and indirectly helps with belly fat loss by boosting your metabolism and increasing muscle mass.

However, too much exercise can backfire. If you’re exercising vigorously every day and feeling exhausted, it’s time to pay attention. Excessive exercise might hinder your weight loss efforts due to elevated cortisol levels.

Fire: dangers of overtraining

So, how can we make exercise work for us instead of against us? How do we find the right balance to manage cortisol effectively and achieve the results we’re after?

These are the questions we’ll explore in this article. Keep reading to uncover how optimising cortisol can help you get the most out of your exercise routine and finally see those weight loss results.


What is cortisol? Cortisol is a hormone your body produces to help you manage stress and keep your energy levels up.

It’s a key player in the fight-or-flight response, helping you react to immediate threats, while also balancing your metabolism and immune functions. However, cortisol also increases during exercise to support your body’s energy demands.

Cortisol’s Role in Stress and Energy.  
Cortisol is often misunderstood. Is it your friend or your foe? The truth is, cortisol plays both roles in your body. Let’s break it down in simple terms so you can understand how to make this powerful hormone work for you on your weight loss journey!

Cortisol as Your Friend

  • Provides Energy: When you wake up in the morning, cortisol is there to help you get out of bed and start your day. Cortisol breaks down stored fats and proteins to give your body the fuel it needs for daily activities and workouts. If your cortisol is balanced, you are ready to tackle daily chores.
  • Manages Stress: When you face stress, cortisol helps you stay alert and focused. It’s like your body’s way of pushing you through challenges.
  • Aids Recovery: After you exercise, cortisol helps repair your muscles and reduce inflammation, so you can get back to your routine feeling strong.

Cortisol as Your Foe

  • Stress and Weight Gain: Long-term stress can keep cortisol levels too high. When cortisol levels stay high for too long, it can lead to weight gain, especially around your belly. High cortisol can increase your appetite and make you crave sugary, fatty foods.
  • Metabolism Slowdown: Too much cortisol can slow down your metabolism. This means your body burns fewer calories, making weight loss harder even if you’re exercising regularly.

  • Fat Storage: High cortisol levels can lead to increased fat storage, particularly in the abdominal area. This is because cortisol promotes fat storage and inhibits fat breakdown.

  • Excessive Muscle Breakdown: If cortisol levels stay high for too long, it can start to break down muscle tissue, which can slow down your fitness progress.

Cortisol's Catabolic Role

As a catabolic hormone, cortisol breaks down tissues, such as muscle and fat, to release energy. This breakdown helps fuel your body when you're under stress or during intense exercise.

It’s like your body’s way of getting the energy it needs in a pinch, but if cortisol is high for too long, it can lead to muscle loss and other problems. 

Cortisol’s Anabolic Role

On the flip side, cortisol also has an anabolic function. In this role, cortisol helps repair and rebuild tissues after stress or exercise.

It supports muscle recovery and repair, ensuring that your body can recover and grow stronger. This anabolic action is crucial after workouts, helping you bounce back and rebuild muscle.

Optimise Cortisol: The Role of Cortisol in Weight Loss

To optimise cortisol in weight loss is crucial. When cortisol levels are balanced and can return to normal after exercise, you’re in a better position to achieve your weight loss goals. However, if cortisol levels become unbalanced, such as from overtraining, you might risk gaining weight instead.


What is overtraining and how is it different from healthy exercise?

Imagine you’re on a mission to get fit, but you find yourself pushing harder and harder at the gym.

You’re doing more cardio, lifting heavier weights, and you’re always thinking about your next workout. But here’s the truth: there’s a fine line between effective exercise and over-exercising.

Healthy Exercise is all about balance. It’s about finding a routine that boosts your mood, strengthens your muscles, and keeps your heart healthy.

It energises you and makes you feel good. It includes regular workouts with rest days in between, a mix of cardio and strength training, and activities you enjoy. It’s a positive force in your life, helping you achieve your goals without overwhelming you.

Overtraining, on the other hand, is when you push your body beyond its limits.

It’s when your workouts become excessive, leaving you feeling drained rather than invigorated. 

Over-exercising doesn’t just mean doing too much; it’s about ignoring your body’s signals and pushing through exhaustion.

Woman lying exhausted on the floor after exercising

How Overtraining Impacts Weight Loss

You might think that working out harder and longer will lead to quicker results. But the reality is that overtraining can sabotage your weight loss efforts.

It’s a classic case of trying to do too much of a good thing and ending up with the opposite results.

When you over-exercise, your body goes into a state of constant stress. This leads to chronically high levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. And while cortisol can help you in short bursts, too much of it can cause big problems.

Here’s how Chronic High Cortisol Sabotages Your Weight Loss and Health:

  • High Cortisol and Belly Fat: High cortisol levels make your body hold onto fat, especially around your belly. Your body thinks it’s in danger, so it stores fat as a survival mechanism. Instead of melting away the belly fat, you might see it getting worse.
  • Slowed Metabolism: Cortisol can slow down your metabolism, which means you burn fewer calories throughout the day. This makes it harder to lose weight, even with your intense workout routine.
  • Muscle Breakdown: Overtraining doesn’t just harm your metabolism; it can break down muscle tissue. Instead of building muscle, you could be losing it, which slows down your progress.
  • Slow Recovery: When you over-exercise, your body doesn’t have time to recover. This means your muscles are still sore, and you’re not ready for your next workout. This slow recovery can prevent you from making progress and might even lead to injuries.
  • Emotional Rollercoaster: Chronic high cortisol can affect your mood, leading to stress, anxiety, and irritability. This emotional strain can make you feel discouraged and unmotivated to keep up with your healthy habits.


Are you pushing yourself too hard? Here are 7 key signs of overtraining to watch for:

Mood swings: woman looking happy and angry

Mood Swings

You’re experiencing extreme highs and lows in your emotions. One minute you’re elated, and the next, you’re feeling down.

Woman with unhappy face lying on a bed

Poor Sleep

You find it hard to fall asleep or stay asleep. Your mind races at night, and you wake up feeling tired.

Woman looking confused, holding her head

Brain Fog

You’re struggling to concentrate or think clearly. Tasks that used to be easy now seem challenging.

Woman pinching her belly fat

Increased Belly Fat

Despite all your hard work, you notice unexplained weight gain around your stomach.

a 'flabby' arm

Muscle Loss

You see a decrease in muscle strength or mass. Your once-toned muscles are now feeling weak and underdeveloped.

2 close ups of woman's face: looking puffy

Puffy Face

Your face looks swollen or rounder than usual, which can be a sign of high cortisol.

Woman holding her painful muscles in neck

Slow Recovery Time

You’re taking longer to recover from your workouts. Your muscles are sore, and you’re struggling to bounce back.


When cortisol levels stay high for too long, your body starts to store more fat, especially around your belly. Here’s how it works:

High Cortisol from Overtraining: If you exercise too much, your body sees it as a stress situation. Even though you might be working out for good reasons, your body can’t tell the difference between a tough workout and a real danger like a car coming at you. Both situations make your cortisol levels rise.

Stress vs. Exercise: Just like worrying about money or a stressful job raises cortisol levels, intense exercise also increases cortisol. Cortisol prepares your body for “fight or flight,” but if these stress levels stay high, it causes problems.

The Fight or Flight Response: When cortisol is high, your body thinks you’re in danger and starts to store fat as a survival mechanism. It’s like your body’s way of getting ready for a long battle or a flight.

Men and woman screaming at each other: fight or flight response

Imbalance from Prolonged Stress: If high cortisol levels last for a long time, it leads to a cortisol imbalance. This means cortisol stays high instead of returning to normal. When this happens, cortisol stops helping you recover from stress or exercise and starts to hurt you.

Belly Fat Storage: With cortisol out of balance, your body doesn’t repair tissues effectively, and it ends up storing more fat around your belly, even if you’re eating healthy and working out regularly.


HIIT Workouts and Cortisol

HIIT  (High-Intensity Interval Training) workouts are intense and exciting, giving you that heart-pumping feeling that can make you feel unstoppable. This high-intensity exercise temporarily spikes cortisol, which helps you burn calories and fat.

However, doing too much HIIT can lead to chronic high cortisol levels, creating stress and stalling your weight loss progress.

For women over 50, it’s important to keep your HIIT sessions short and sweet - aim for 2-3 times a week, and make sure you get enough rest to optimise cortisol levels.

Cardio Workouts and Cortisol

Cardio exercises like walking or swimming are great for keeping your heart healthy and your body moving. During cardio, your cortisol levels rise a bit to fuel your workout.

While this moderate increase is helpful, too much cardio can lead to high cortisol levels, which might slow down your weight loss efforts. For women over 50, stick to 2-4 cardio sessions per week, focusing on enjoyable activities that don’t push you too hard.

Weight Lifting

Weight lifting is a powerful tool for building muscle and strength, especially for women over 50, When you lift weights, you challenge your muscles, causing them to grow stronger and larger over time.

With weight lifting, your body uses energy to repair and build muscle rather than storing fat, which can help reduce belly fat over time.

This muscle growth not only improves your physical appearance but also boosts your metabolism, which helps you burn more calories even at rest.

For women over 50, strength training is more than just a workout; it’s a vital part of maintaining muscle mass and bone health.

While lifting weights does cause a slight increase in cortisol, this temporary boost supports muscle repair and growth.

50 Plus woman with resistance bands

However, to make the most of your workouts and avoid potential downsides, it’s crucial to give yourself 48 hours of rest between sessions targeting the same muscle groups.

For example, if you work your upper body on one day, make sure to rest for at least 48 hours before working that same muscle group again.

This rest period helps lower cortisol levels, allowing your muscles to recover, and grow stronger, and preventing fatigue or overtraining.

For women over 50, aiming for 2-3 weight lifting sessions per week is ideal. By balancing your workouts with proper recovery, you can effectively build muscle, manage weight, and keep your bones strong and healthy.

Optimise Cortisol: Combining Exercise for Best Results

Weight training and HIIT create an afterburn effect, which boosts your metabolism and helps you burn more calories even when you're resting.

This is known as the "afterburn effect" or excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). For women over 50, combining weight training and HIIT with moderate cardio can be particularly effective in managing weight and maintaining muscle mass.

Woman 50 plus on training bike
A table with healthy foods

It's important to remember that exercise is only part of the weight loss equation. To truly see results, focus on a balanced, nutritious diet like the Mediterranean diet while maintaining a slight calorie deficit. Prioritising protein intake is crucial.

Important Note: If you’re unsure whether exercises like HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training), cardio, or weight training are right for you, it’s essential to consult a healthcare professional before you begin.

Health conditions, medications, and personal factors can influence what’s best for your fitness journey. I’m not a doctor - your health and safety come first, so seek professional advice to ensure your exercise plan is safe and effective for you!


So how can you balance your cortisol and make sure you get the results you are after?

Exercise Regularly: Build Your Stress Tolerance

Regular exercise is crucial for boosting your metabolism and managing cortisol. When you work out, you temporarily increase cortisol levels, but this is a good thing when managed properly.

Regular exercise helps build your stress tolerance and improves your body’s response to stress. Think of it as training your body to handle stress better, just like you train your muscles.

Remember, consistency is key. By sticking to a regular exercise routine, you help your body adapt to stress, balance and optimise cortisol levels and setting yourself up for long-term success.

HIIT and Weight Training: The Afterburn Effect

For women over 50, combining weight training and HIIT can be especially effective. These exercises offer something magical called the "afterburn effect."

After you finish a HIIT workout or strength training session, your metabolism continues to burn calories for hours.

Don’t Overexercise: Listen to Your Body

Exercising too much can lead to high cortisol levels that stay elevated for too long, causing problems like fatigue, muscle loss, and stubborn belly fat.

If you’re constantly exhausted, experiencing skin rashes, or seeing belly fat increase despite your hard work, it’s a sign you might be overdoing it.

Woman looking fit and relaxed

Here’s what to do: Balance your exercise routine by including adequate rest and recovery. Listen to your body - if you’re feeling drained or unwell, it’s okay to take a step back.

Exercise: The Balance Between Workouts and Rest

When it comes to exercise, finding the right balance is crucial. While moderate to intensive workouts, like weight lifting and HIIT, can help you burn calories and build muscle, it’s important not to overdo it.

Overexercising can lead to chronically high cortisol levels, which can hinder your weight loss efforts.

Exercise Smartly: Aim for a mix of weight lifting and HIIT, focusing on effective, efficient workouts rather than excessive ones.

Rest and Recover: Incorporate rest days into your routine. This means giving yourself time to recover between intense workouts to keep your cortisol levels balanced.

Effective Exercise Routines for Women Over 50

A well-rounded exercise routine might look like this:

  • Cardio: 2-4 sessions per week of enjoyable activities like walking, swimming, or cycling.
  • Strength Training: 2-3 sessions per week focusing on major muscle groups.
  • Flexibility: Activities like yoga or stretching at least once a week to maintain flexibility and support recovery.
Woman 50 plus doing a plank exercise

Practical Tip: Mix up your workouts. Combine different types of exercise, such as strength training, cardio, and flexibility workouts. This balance keeps your routine effective and enjoyable.

Stones being balanced.


Beyond exercise, three other crucial factors can help you maintain balanced and optimised cortisol levels and support your weight loss journey: sleep, nutrition, and stress management.

Sleep Well

Aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night. Sleep is essential for cortisol regulation, muscle repair, and overall health.

Eat a Balanced Diet

Focus on a diet rich in protein, healthy fats, and whole grains. A balanced diet supports healthy cortisol levels and aids in weight loss. Specifically, women over 50 should prioritize protein to help with muscle maintenance and metabolism.

Manage Stress

High stress can lead to high cortisol levels. Incorporate yoga, meditation, and leisurely walks into your routine to manage stress and keep your cortisol levels in check.

Looking for new ways to reduce stress and improve relaxation? Check out this fascinating article on how stimulating the vagus nerve can make a big difference. Click here to read more!


Are you ready to see real results in your weight loss journey? You now have the knowledge to optimise cortisol levels and the tools you need to achieve success.

The next step is up to you. Let’s recap the essential elements of a successful weight loss strategy:

Smiling senior woman looking healthy and lean
  • Balance and Optimise Cortisol Levels: Maintain a healthy balance to keep stress in check and support your weight loss efforts.
  • Prioritise Overall Health: Engage in regular exercise for a healthier, stronger body and a more resilient mind.
  • Build Stress Tolerance: Regular exercise helps you manage stress better and enhances your overall well-being.
  • Focus on Weight Lifting and HIIT: These effective workouts boost your metabolism and promote fat loss, especially if tailored to your needs.
  • Embrace Rest and Recovery: Give your body time to heal and grow stronger - rest is just as crucial as exercise.
  • Eat a Balanced Diet: Fuel your body with nutritious foods and stay in a slight calorie deficit for weight loss.
  • Get Quality Sleep: Aim for 7-9 hours per night to support your body’s recovery and hormone balance.
  • Manage Stress Wisely: Use stress reduction techniques like yoga, meditation, or simply taking time for yourself.

In an ideal world, following these steps would bring perfect results, but reality often presents challenges - busy schedules, excuses, and health issues can all get in the way. So, ladies, remember to take it one step at a time.

What’s your current exercise routine like? Are you pushing yourself too hard with endless cardio? It might be time to rethink your approach and find a balanced path to sustainable weight loss and overall well-being.

I’d love to hear about your experiences with overtraining and weight loss. Share your thoughts in the comments below - your insights might just inspire the next update to this article!

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Birgit is a compassionate guide specializing in supporting senior women through life's transitions. Alongside her dedication to this cause, she finds joy in teaching piano, nurturing her garden, cherishing family moments, and enjoying walks. These activities fuel her creativity and bring depth and richness to her life.

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