In response to our recent poll, fitness expert and PCOS Diva guest contributor, Erika Volk, sat down to answer some of your toughest and most common questions about exercising with PCOS. This is the first of her 3 part series on PCOS and fitness.
Q: If you only have time for a 30-minute workout per day, what exercises are most important?
A: First of all, I love that this Diva has decided to select an exercise program that fits into her schedule! I’ve worked with women who try to make their lives fit around their exercise program – they end up stressing out over their workout. Working out should reduce stress, not create stress!
For women with PCOS, building strength should be the priority. As I mentioned in my last article, Treat PCOS Naturally with Strength Training, strength training stimulates the body to adapt and change in ways that will help improve PCOS symptoms.
If you workout 5-6 days a week for 30 minutes, devote at least three, or maybe even four, workouts to strength training. Here is a short video of 4 exercises that will work for women of any size or fitness level. You don’t need to go to the gym or have any special equipment.
Focus your other 2-3 workouts on cardiovascular exercise. Since you only have 30 minutes, try interval training. Interval training, especially High-intensity Interval Training, is a more time efficient form of cardiovascular exercise.
Set aside at least one day for recovery each week. You can and should still get in some activity, just make sure it is gentle and restorative. I like to take a casual walk on my recovery days or spend a half hour doing some stretching and deep breathing.
Q: What are your recommendations for staying dedicated to exercise while battling PCOS fatigue? When do you push yourself and when do you back off?
A: Fatigue is a PCOS symptom I am all too familiar with! When struggling with chronic fatigue, it can be hard to convince yourself that exercise is the answer, but the truth is that physical activity alleviates fatigue like nothing else can!
When you have a low energy day, be kind to yourself, but don’t give up! If you have a workout scheduled, honor that commitment by at least doing the warm up. More often than not, by the time I’ve completed my warm up, my energy levels are much better.
On days when even my warm up does not help me bounce back, I will modify my routine to be less challenging or will just take a day off. You need to listen to your body without letting fatigue rule your life.
Q: Because many women with PCOS carry extra weight, this makes it even more difficult to start an exercise program. What advice do you have for someone truly just getting started with an attempt at getting more fit?
A: Whether it is your size, a past injury or your fitness level that’s limiting you, don’t get discouraged!
The first step is to find a program, personal trainer, or a group class that you like. It is much easier to stick with something you enjoy and believe in.
Pretty much every exercise under the sun can be modified to accommodate your fitness level. A good trainer or instructor will know how to help with that and if you’re working out on your own, the internet is a wonderful resource. Don’t be embarrassed to ask for help or an alternative exercise. If everybody could work out like Jillian Michaels, I’d be out of a job!
Q: Can working out (cardio in particular) cause weight gain?
A: Working out will not cause you to gain fat. You might gain weight from muscle growth or water weight fluctuations, but don’t be worried about gaining fat.
However, there are a couple ways that working out can interfere with fat loss. It is not uncommon for people to overeat when they’re exercising regularly. It’s a phenomenon called compensatory eating. Some well-intentioned trainees overeat after a workout because they feel they have earned it. The truth is that it’s much easier to eat calories than it is to burn them. Be careful not to fall into this thought pattern as it can derail your fitness goals.
It is possible to disrupt your metabolic system by working out compulsively or following an inappropriate training program. Such disruptions can stall fat loss. If you want to lose weight, make sure the program you’re following is designed for that goal. A marathon training program will help you run a marathon and a fat-loss workout will help you lose fat.
Q: Many have mentioned HIIT workouts and weights – what about something like PIYO? What is an effective combination of various workout routines (cardio, weights, resistance, etc.)? Are some variations of cardio better than others?
A: Ultimately, the best workout for you is the one you will do. If you love taking PIYO, a karate class, or running in 5k’s – go for it!
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) and strength training are especially effective in minimizing PCOS symptoms and complications. Research studies have shown that HIIT and strength training improve insulin sensitivity, metabolic function and reduce belly fat in PCOS women.
Try and include a variety of exercise into your week. If you want to exercise to manage PCOS, include some strength training, high-intensity cardio and active recovery. The exact combination and schedule of your workouts will depend on your schedule, preferences, and goals.
Q: I want to start a weight routine at home, but don’t have a lot of cash to invest in equipment. Are kettlebells the best way to go? Recommendations?
A: Kettlebells are great for home gyms. I also think that rubber resistance bands, dumbbells, and bodyweight exercises are terrific options. My personal all-time favorite choice for home gym equipment is the TRX Suspension Trainer. I travel with my TRX in my carry-on bag!
Q: Will strength training raise my androgen levels?
A: This a great question with a complicated answer, so bear with me!
When I was first asked this question, my gut reaction was “no way!” I do not like to give unresearched responses to a question, so I held my tongue and started to dig into the research.
Unfortunately, no one has ever attempted to study this in women with PCOS, so we will have to settle for research done on the general population.
Q: What does the research say?
A: Different research studies have drawn different conclusions. Some studies have found women have a temporary testosterone spike after resistance training. Some studies have found no change in testosterone. A few others have found some minor long term changes. Overall, not a single study has found that women’s testosterone becomes perilously high as a result of strength training.
I tried to find a conclusive answer in the research. I even enlisted the help of a friend who is an exercise physiology researcher living with PCOS. She agreed that there was no clear answer to this question in the current medical research.
Q: What do I think based on what I’ve learned and my experience as a trainer?
A: We know that insulin resistance, belly fat, and obesity can cause or worsen hyperandrogenism in women with PCOS. Strength training is a proven method of managing insulin resistance, belly fat, and obesity. Therefore, I think that strength training is more likely to improve your hormonal balance than make it worse.
I’ve trained many women with PCOS and metabolic syndrome. They become happier and healthier when they strength train regularly.
Q: What do PCOS Doctors say?
A: Have you listened to any of Amy’s interviews with PCOS experts? They are awesome!
Amy has posed this very question to both Dr. Dian Ginsberg and Dr. Mark Perloe. I would encourage you to check out their interviews so you can get their expert opinion.
If I could leave you with one parting piece of advice, it is simply to get moving. Don’t let questions, insecurities, or other roadblocks prevent you from getting more physical activity. I truly believe that every woman was born to enjoy the power and strength of her body through movement. It is your birthright! You’ve just got to go claim it!
Erika Volk is a certified personal trainer, Nutrition Coach, and fitness writer. She holds certifications from the American Council on Exercise (ACE), TRX Suspension Training Systems, Precision Nutrition and is the creator of the Just Start! Workout Program for Women With PCOS. She believes that lifestyle modifications are the best treatment for PCOS. If you want to learn more about how exercise can alleviate PCOS symptoms, please visit her website at erikavolkfitness.com.
Erika lives with her husband in a small beach town somewhere in Costa Rica. Her hobbies include cooking, hiking, learning Spanish and traveling. At erikavolkfitness.com you’ll find at-home workout plans, healthy cooking tips, and stories about her life in Costa Rica.