Want to learn how to exercise in a way that supports your PCOS, hormones, and thyroid, instead of making your symptoms worse? This post is for you!
This guest post is by Despina Pavlou, the founder of PCOS Oracle and a certified personal trainer. She takes a holistic and evidence-based approach to both nutrition and training. After being diagnosed with PCOS at the age of 18, she was forced to learn about PCOS and her body to overcome it. She believes both diet and lifestyle modifications are an effective approach to managing PCOS and its symptoms. Despina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @pcosoracle on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Over to you, Despina!
You’ve heard about the benefits of exercise and the risks of living a sedentary lifestyle for PCOS. Through your research, you have discovered various workout programs. You have jumped on all the latest fitness trends and tried to replicate the lives of your favorite fitness icons. But no matter what you try, you never seem to see any long-term improvements in your PCOS symptoms. The weight is still not budging, you feel fatigued, are suffering from an irregular menstrual cycle, and always feel cold.
The truth is that among the abundance of information on the benefits of exercise, there is a lack of education on the potential risks of TOO MUCH exercise. When it comes to exercise, it’s common to think that more is the answer.
But that isn’t true.
It’s critical to understand what effect taking exercise to the extreme can have on your hormones.
The information I share in this post is fundamental in understanding whether your exercise program supports your PCOS and thyroid. You may feel like you are doing everything right, but your exercise may be preventing you from balancing your hormones and reversing your PCOS symptoms.
So if you want to learn how to exercise in a way that supports your PCOS and thyroid, continue reading.
Before I delve into how to exercise to support your thyroid and PCOS, you are probably wondering: What’s the link between the thyroid and PCOS?
The Link Between the Thyroid and PCOS
Well, research has reported an increased incidence of thyroid disorders like hypothyroidism in women with PCOS.
Before I explain what hypothyroidism is, let me briefly discuss the thyroid's role in the body. The thyroid is an organ found in the neck and it releases hormones that control the body’s metabolism. These hormones are thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3).
All cells and organs in the body are affected by the thyroid. Thyroid hormones regulate the digestive system, heart rate, and affect ovulation. As a result, it's essential to protect and support the thyroid to ensure healthy thyroid hormone production.
Hypothyroidism is where the thyroid gland is underactive and is not producing enough of the thyroid hormones. Hypothyroidism symptoms include weight gain, hair loss, cold hands and feet, fatigue, dry skin, puffy face, slow heart rate, and an irregular menstrual cycle.
A low functioning or sluggish thyroid can affect the estrogen to progesterone ratio. When progesterone levels are low, estrogen levels are left unopposed and remain high. Estrogen is anti-thyroid and it activates the adrenals causing them to pump out DHEA.
You now know the link between the thyroid and PCOS. Let’s take a look at how exercise can help your PCOS.
Can Exercise Help PCOS?
Absolutely! Exercise is a key component in any PCOS treatment plan. Countless studies have proven just how therapeutic exercise is to our physical and mental health.
Exercise Increases Insulin Sensitivity
Around 70% of women with PCOS suffer from insulin resistance. This is a condition where the cells in the body have difficulty absorbing glucose in the blood. As a result, there is a build-up of sugar in the bloodstream.
Any regular movement or physical activity can help increase a person’s insulin sensitivity. Research reveals that exercise not only increases insulin sensitivity during the actual physical activity but for at least 16 hours post-exercise. Meaning exercise helps the cells in the body become more responsive to the effects of insulin.
Weight gain and difficulty losing weight is a common symptom of PCOS. With an increase in insulin sensitivity, weight loss efforts can also improve.
Exercise Improves Mental Health
However, researchers have found a link that shows exercise may improve mental health in women with PCOS. Scientists are still unclear on what mechanisms exercise influences to boost mental health. But despite the lack of consensus, the potential benefits are impossible to ignore.
As you can see, exercise provides significant benefits for women with PCOS. However, a person can miss out on these powerful health-promoting effects if they exercise too much.
Is Exercise Making Your PCOS Worse?
Exercise isn’t bad. The problem is how much exercise a person does.
Here’s the deal.
When we exercise, the endocrine system responds by releasing and suppressing certain hormones. Some hormones serve us better than others.
Now as I am sure you are aware, exercise is a stress.
You may be saying to yourself, but it’s a ‘good stress’.
I would agree and say, yes. Exercise is one of those “good” types of stress. But it’s a stress on the body, nonetheless.
Through coaching clients and on social media, I have come to realize that many people are unaware of the full effects exercise has on their health and hormones. It’s common to think that because exercise has so many benefits for our overall health and wellbeing, there can be no adverse effects.
But that is just not true.
Stress Suppresses the Thyroid Gland
When dealing with hormonal issues like PCOS, there is a fine line between doing too much exercise and not doing enough. As I mentioned above, exercise can be classed as a ‘good’ stress because it is necessary for things like muscle growth. An increase in growth hormone (GH), for example, will also trigger the release of cortisol. Muscle needs to break down to grow. But if you train too long or too intensely, you can end up creating even more hormone havoc.
Check this out.
A study found that exercise performed at high intensities (>70%) caused the most noticeable changes in participants' hormones. Results show that as TSH, T4 and fT4 increased, T3 and fT3 decreased. The results highlight that high-intensity training uses up most of the body's T3 and therefore causes low energy levels.
Many people look to athletes as an example of how they should exercise and of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. It can give you inspiration and the motivation to exercise. But many don't realize that just because athletes look ‘fit’ or ‘healthy’ on the outside, it doesn’t mean they are healthy on the inside.
A study found endurance athletes that put their bodies through prolonged intense training and competitive races suffer from chronically higher cortisol levels. Researchers have also uncovered thyroid disorders are among the most common endocrine conditions among athletes.
Women with PCOS tend to suffer from low thyroid and high cortisol, so over-exercising will set you back or push you further away from achieving hormonal balance and reversing your symptoms.
How To Use Exercise To Improve PCOS and Protect Your Thyroid
As you can see, exercise is an excellent addition to your PCOS plan. It can improve insulin resistance, help with weight loss, and boost mental health. However, you must understand that the type and the amount of exercise you do can negatively impact your hormones and PCOS.
So how do you use exercise to protect your thyroid and help you reverse your PCOS symptoms?
A workout program that minimizes stress hormones is best for protecting your thyroid and supporting your PCOS.
What does this mean for you?
Well, to minimize the spike in cortisol, this may mean avoiding high-intensity workouts, endurance cardio and exercising too frequently.
Avoid HIIT Workouts
Studies have found High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) to be beneficial in improving PCOS and insulin resistance. The intense intervals require lots of glucose and as a result, muscle glycogen stores quickly deplete. The change in muscle glycogen stores stimulates an increase in insulin sensitivity. With an increase in insulin sensitivity, the body’s cells can utilize glucose more efficiently.
However, the drawback of HIIT for women with PCOS is that it significantly raises cortisol levels. Results from a study found that exercising at an intensity of 80% of maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 max) caused a significant increase in cortisol.
Avoid lengthy workouts
Workouts should be between 30-60 minutes.
Let me explain why.
When you exercise, your body uses the glucose floating in your bloodstream for energy. This supply, however, only lasts for about 30 minutes. So after the body has burned through this supply, it must find a replacement to maintain energy levels.
The adrenal glands are then triggered to release stress hormones like cortisol. Cortisol is a catabolic hormone, meaning it breaks down fat cells, muscle cells and organs to convert them into glucose to make energy.
Women with PCOS already suffer from overactive adrenals and high cortisol, so intense and lengthy workouts can make matters even worse. You may be hoping to improve insulin resistance and balancing your hormones, but you are just further depleting yourself and burdening your adrenal glands.
The Best Exercise for PCOS and the Thyroid
The best exercise for PCOS depends on the individual's case, where they are in their journey, and their lifestyle.
Here are some of the best forms of exercise for PCOS and thyroid issues like hypothyroidism.
Yoga is a great low-impact exercise that can help you achieve hormone balance.
Yoga is a perfect exercise for PCOS and your thyroid because it activates the parasympathetic nervous system. In our current society, many of us are unfortunately living on sympathetic nervous system overdrive.
Activation of the sympathetic nervous system happens when the body perceives a threat. It remains on high alert when we are in a chronic state of stress. If we are unable to switch off those stressors, we stay in a fight or flight state.
Findings from a study revealed that doing yoga 3 times a week significantly improved free testosterone levels and PCOS participants' anxiety and depression scores.
Resistance training is a form of exercise that causes the muscle to contract against a weight or force, with the outcome of building muscle, strength, or endurance. The resistance can come from free weights, machines, resistance bands or a person’s body weight.
Lifting weights causes less of a spike in plasma cortisol concentrations. But cortisol levels can increase depending on exertion levels and rest time.
When starting out, you will want to begin with a full-body workout 2-3x a week. Work large muscle groups like legs, back, chest and shoulder. Aim for 2-5 sets of each exercise and 8-12 reps. Include a 1-3 minute rest between sets.
Benefits of resistance training for PCOS include:
- Decrease in testosterone levels. Results from a study where PCOS women completed a 16-week resistance training program found that their testosterone levels significantly reduced on completion of the program.
- Improves Insulin Resistance. A study found every 10% increase in muscle mass was linked to an 11% reduction in the risk of insulin resistance.
- Increases Your Metabolic Rate. Weightlifting can increase your RMR. You see, when you lift weights, you build muscle, and muscle is more metabolically active than fat, meaning muscle burns more calories than fat.
Walking is a perfect example of a low-intensity exercise that can keep cortisol levels low and does not require much effort. So if you are looking to include some aerobic activity, walking is a simple and effective way to include more movement in your life.
Walks in nature have been shown in research to help decrease cortisol levels. If you have a park or some green space in your vicinity, choose to walk around there to reap the stress-reducing effects.
Regular, moderate-paced walks for 30 minutes is all you need to support your hormones and PCOS. So get walking!
PCOS Exercise Summary
Exercise plays a key role in PCOS and hormone balance. It can help improve insulin resistance, weight loss and lower testosterone levels. As well as improve depression and anxiety. But women must know and understand the effect excessive and intense exercise can have on their hormones.
To reap the incredible benefits of exercise, less is often best. Lengthy and high-intensity workouts significantly raise cortisol levels and suppress the thyroid. Therefore, if you are working on balancing your hormones and reversing your PCOS symptoms, it is important to minimize or even altogether avoid such workouts. Learn to work with your body and stop putting it through stressful and intense workout programs.
Thanks again, Despina, for sharing your wisdom with us!