Guest post by Erika Volk
You Can’t Sweat Off PCOS.
One of the very best tools for managing PCOS is regular exercise. For most of you, this is not new information. Your doctors and other PCOS experts like Amy have been touting the benefits of exercise for years. As a woman living with PCOS and personal trainer, I wholeheartedly believe that exercise has the power to radically improve your PCOS.
Let’s first go over some basic benefits of exercise for women with PCOS.
Reduce Body Fat
When you exercise, you burn calories that can help you create an energy deficit, so that your body needs to burn stored fat for energy, AKA burn fat. Studies have shown that overweight women living with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome can increase their fertility by losing just a modest amount of weight.
Increase Insulin Sensitivity
Many women with PCOS, including lean women, have insulin resistance or hyperinsulinemia (too much insulin in the blood.) Chronically high insulin causes the ovaries to increase production of testosterone. Elevated levels of testosterone can disrupt your menstrual cycle, cause acne, and hirsutism. Exercise, especially strength training, increases insulin sensitivity in both healthy women and women who have polycystic ovarian syndrome.
Exercise reduces levels of adrenaline and cortisol (hormones associated with stress) and it stimulates the production of endorphins, which are brain chemicals that give you a sense of well-being. Some healthcare practitioners believe elevated cortisol plays a role in the hormonal dysregulation associated with PCOS. Plus anxiety and depression are more prevalent in cycsters. The cortisol-reducing and endorphin-boosting effects of a workout can mitigate both of these issues!
As enthusiastic as I am about exercise as a PCOS management tool- I would be the first to admit that is not a cure. You can’t sweat away your PCOS. In fact, excessive exercise, or an imbalanced exercise program can aggravate symptoms.
I’ve received emails from confused and frustrated readers who are working out hard every day, and do not see improvements. They want to know what else they can do to move the numbers on the scale and restore their health. But the truth is they have done more than enough- their workout programs make training for an Olympic event look easy! The problem is they might be doing too much.
Exercise is a form of temporary physical stress that your body responds to by making the changes I mentioned above: using stored fat as energy, improving insulin sensitivity and reducing stress hormones. But to reap these benefits, you must give your body the rest and nutrition it needs to recover from these bouts of stress.
When you fail to provide your body with the necessary recovery time, it becomes overwhelmed. You might experience fatigue, dysregulated hormones, and pain. Some of the symptoms of over-training include:
- Chronic muscle and joint soreness
- Missing your period (especially if your cycle was regular)
- Fatigue despite getting adequate sleep
- Feeling stressed or upset when you miss a workout
- Lack of focus, jitteriness and trouble falling asleep.
- Frequently getting colds and other communicable illnesses
- You have stopped making progress or have “hit a plateau.”
At the heart of this urge to over-train is a misunderstanding about how exercise affects weight loss and PCOS. Misinformation has led many women to focus solely on the fat burning benefits of exercise. If you follow this simple calories-in vs. calories-out approach to fitness, you would naturally think that more exercise is always better.
The truth is that more exercise is not always the answer. You need to follow a program that allows your body time to recover and make those valuable physiological changes. Burning calories is nice, but the real magic happens when your body recovers and becomes a better version of itself!
How much is too much?
The right amount of training for you may not be the same as someone else. Obviously, if you are experiencing the symptoms of over-training, you should cut back. For the average woman trying to manage PCOS, these basic guidelines are a good place to start.
Get stronger. 2-3 days a week do some strength training. Strength training is key to improving your metabolic function and insulin sensitivity.
Move every day but do not work-out every day. 2-3 days do some form of active recovery: instead of an intense workout go for a walk, an easy bike ride, or do gentle yoga.
Keep your cardio sessions short. Long, drawn-out cardio sessions have a tendency to stress out our bodies. A better choice is shorter, more intense workouts like this 20-minute interval workout. Several research studies have shown that PCOS responds particularly well to interval training.
Fuel your workout. Eating a well-balanced meal made of unrefined, whole foods before and after your workout will help you recover and feel energized.
The takeaway message here is listening to your body. Your workout program should nurture you and not punish you. You can’t sweat your PCOS away, but a balanced approach to exercise will help you thrive in spite of PCOS.