Exercise for Hormonal Balance
Regular exercise is essential for not only hormonal balance and period health, but overall wellbeing. Most people associate exercise with weight loss. While there are certainly benefits to weight loss if you are overweight, exercise is far from a weight-management-only regime. Aside from the incredible effects it has on hormones, exercise gives you an overall sense of wellbeing by releasing endorphins – those “feel good” hormones that reduce anxiety and pain and create feelings of euphoria.
There are also several important hormones affected by exercise including estrogen, testosterone, thyroid hormone, and growth hormone. Movement modulates your stress response and has the overall result of reducing cortisol which reduces chronic inflammation. With all of these fantastic benefits, is it any wonder that regular exercise comes so highly recommended?
When it comes to hormonal health, exercise reduces both stress and inflammation, which is incredibly supportive for those who experience PMS. It also improves your sensitivity to insulin which can help not only prevent and treat conditions such as PCOS, but also insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome. Exercise also improves circulation to your pelvic organs, strengthening your pelvic floor muscles and aligning your uterus inside your pelvis.
For women going through menopause, exercise helps reduce symptoms. For example, women who walk briskly for 30 minutes per day were able to cut their incidence of hot flashes in half. Even just 10 minutes of aerobic exercise can enhance the levels of good estrogen and testosterone in postmenopausal women. In this case, exercise can be thought of as a hormonal enhancer.
A look at a few key hormones and how exercise affects them in a little bit more detail
Healthy estrogen levels normalize when women exercise. Exercise also reduces the overall size of fat cells and inhibits the action of aromatase (an enzyme produced by fat cells that produces estrogen) – both of which are protective against breast cancer. Regular exercise also has the added benefit of normalizing high cortisol and improving the action of insulin; and since all hormones have effects on other hormones, these actions have a positive effect on estrogen.
Women who suffer from conditions of estrogen-dominance (endometriosis, adenomyosis, PMS, uterine fibroids, fibrocystic breasts, etc.) benefit a great deal from regular exercise.
While generally thought of as a “male hormone”, women produce small amounts of testosterone as well – and it is actually essential for women’s health. It is the hormone of desire (think libido) as well as being essential for maintaining muscle tone, stamina, and strength. It helps women feel strong and sexy. Testosterone naturally starts to decline in women over the age of 40, specifically in those who do not exercise regularly. This correlates with the time that you begin noticing that slow slide in muscle tone as well as sagging breasts. Testosterone increases your metabolism – the speed at which your body burns food for fuel – so you burn fat faster (which is another plus for those with estrogen-dominance!).
The best way to enhance testosterone is through exercise. Now, for women suffering from PCOS, for example, in which an excess of androgens (male hormones) are being produced, this does not mean that exercise should be avoided. It ultimately comes down to the TYPE of exercise that you choose – we’ll get into that in just a moment.
T4, the inactive form of thyroid hormone, is increased by almost 35% during exercise. Plus, the longer you exercise, the longer your T4 levels will stay high afterward. If you incorporate regular exercise into your day, your thyroid responds by keeping T4 levels stable even when you are not exercising. Your thyroid hormones set the metabolism in most cells – by increasing T4, you increase your energy production and elevate your mood.
When you exercise, your cortisol (one of your main stress hormones) naturally rises for several hours before it levels off. This is why it is best to avoid evening exercise, if possible; since high nighttime cortisol levels can disrupt your sleep. If you must exercise in the evening, try lower intensity exercises and a relaxing activity afterward.
Choosing the right exercise for you
As great as the benefits are for our hormones, too much, too little, or the wrong type of exercise, can become counter-productive by inducing stress. If you are in a state of HPA-axis dysfunction (AKA adrenal exhaustion), are under chronic stress or experience chronic fatigue (which is very typical of hormonal imbalance), choosing the right type of exercise is key. If you over-train or exert yourself too much, you deplete the function of your adrenals – if your adrenals are already in a state of chronic stress (HPA-axis dysfunction AKA adrenal exhaustion), you will experience chronic fatigue and burnout, and exhaustion following intense exercise.
Chronic activation of the stress response (i.e. demand on your adrenals) causes you to break down muscle. When your adrenal function is low (as in HPA-axis dysfunction AKA adrenal exhaustion), your DHEA and testosterone production decline as well. As mentioned earlier, testosterone is responsible for building muscle, stamina, and libido! So, to get the benefits of testosterone, it is important to not only exercise but to power down your stress.
Adrenal exhaustion can develop from various exercise errors, including:
continually pushing your body beyond its capability
being very active while getting insufficient nutrients
a combination of life stress and exercise that is too intense for your own tolerance
exercising for overly long periods
not giving your body sufficient time to recover between bouts of exercise
Feeling exceptionally tired the day after a workout, or even two days after a workout is a telltale sign that your adrenals are being overtaxed. This is not to say that you should not participate in physical activity altogether – doing no exercise, just like doing too much, can work to disrupt your hormones. Somewhere in between, there is an optimum level and type of activity that will lower your stress levels, stabilize your hormones, improve your mood, increase your energy, help you sleep well, and make you feel better overall. The trick is striking that balance and finding what works for you in your particular stage in life. And, because of natural changes in hormone levels, your body might require a different type of approach from time to time.
Low-intensity exercise has been shown to lower cortisol levels and is much more aligned with a plan to reduce chronic stress and rebalance hormones. So, if you are chronically stressed or notice that you crash and burn after a major workout, it might be time to cut back on your training plan, get more restorative for a while and replenish yourself. Gentle forms of exercise can help, including long walks, hiking, yoga, tai chi, and classes focusing on stretching, flexibility, and balance.
While HIIT, circuit and boot camp style workouts are all the rage right now, hopefully, you can see why these types of workouts are not optimal for everyone; particularly women with hormonal imbalances, especially HPA-axis dysfunction (AKA adrenal exhaustion).
Move no matter what
Exercise does not have to be difficult, unenjoyable or involve spandex tights at a gym. It also does not require hours of time to do – so the excuse of being “too busy” just does not work. It can be as simple as going for a brisk walk, purchasing some ankle/wrist weights to wear while you do housework, cycling, dancing, swimming, playing tennis, and even having sex. You can also buy exercise videos to use in your own home, on your own time, with minimal to no equipment. Break-up your exercise throughout the day to make it more manageable to fit in. Try 10 minutes first thing in the morning, 10 minutes mid-way through the day, and 10 minutes after work. Again, it doesn’t have to be difficult. Choose activities that you enjoy, commit to them and schedule them in.
Another inexpensive tool that you can use to get your exercise in is a rebounder. It is essentially a mini trampoline that takes up very little space – it can fit quite nicely under your bed. Rebounding also has the added benefit of stimulating your lymphatic system. Promoting flow and drainage of the lymph fluid, which relies on movement for circulation, also has the added bonus of reducing cellulite. If you have time to watch TV or Netflix, you have time to jump on a rebounder!
So when it comes to balancing your hormones, exercise plays a vital role. However, it is important to keep in mind that choosing the RIGHT TYPE of exercise is critical for hormonal health; too high intensity can cause further fluctuations in your hormones, where too little can be just as damaging. Finding your sweet spot, which will evolve over time, is the key. Ideally, you want to move your body for 30 minutes each day. As you find your stamina improves as well as your strength and endurance, you can gradually increase the intensity. But, be mindful of how your body responds; if you feel exhausted immediately afterwards, or for a day or even two days later, you’ve pushed too hard and need to dial back. Conversely, if your exercise routine no longer feels challenging, you likely need to power-up just slightly.
Bottom line choose the type of exercise that you enjoy. This will make it much easier to commit to on an ongoing basis. Hiking, swimming, dancing, walking and yoga are all activities that are beneficial for hormonal health.