Cortisol Confusion: Why Some TikTokers Ditch Weights for Pilates


Don’t get us wrong—pilates is a pretty sweet form of exercise. 

It’s basically yoga with no chill, adding more rigorous (but usually weight-free) strength training to the postural, core stability, flexibility, and breathwork emphases of yoga.

However, while we’re all for this exercise method receiving more attention, the problem is the anti-lifting bias that sometimes comes attached.

The Claim

Lifting increases production of the stress hormone cortisol much more than Pilates does, says a crop of misinformed TikTokers, and is, therefore, a much less effective tool for losing weight.

To their credit, many of the TikTokers promoting pilates in this way are not completely abandoning weights, but they still claim that pilates “lowers” or “balances” cortisol levels in a way that can facilitate weight loss.

The Truth

While it’s true that the stress hormone cortisol can increase both your craving for sweets and your body’s ability to store fat through multiple well-evidenced mechanisms, the idea that lifting-induced cortisol secretion is responsible for these effects is heavily flawed.

Yes, lifting temporarily increases cortisol levels, but these levels return to normal within minutes after exercise. 

It’s habitual sleep deprivation, doom-scrolling, and other sources of anxiety that will ratchet that cortisol up and keep it there.

Also, the body adapts to the cortisol-spiking effect of weightlifting if you workout regularly, as this exercise physiologist demonstrated in a study of high-intensity cyclists who demonstrated smaller cortisol spikes with time.

cortisol spikes

Leveraging Stress for Good

Stress isn’t always bad. Cortisol isn’t always bad. Eustress, or good stress, is the kind we impose on ourselves to strengthen our muscle tissues and lose weight. 

This is what Pilates, lifting weights, seniors doing crossword puzzles, and investing in a really awesome bidet have in common: they use that initial “pain,” whatever form it takes, for a worthwhile yield in the end.

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