When it comes to exercise, most people focus on how breaking a sweat can help them achieve a certain body shape. But the benefits extend far beyond physical appearance. Exercise is pretty much a universal good, and it is a big part of the solution to many health problems.
Among its many advantages, engaging in daily movement can help balance your blood sugar, stimulate the lymphatic system, and promote regular bowel movements. As an added bonus, all of these processes also help to restore hormonal balance within our bodies.
But exercise can also have a profound effect when it comes to addressing specific hormonal issues. If hormone testing reveals that your estrogen or testosterone is high, a fitness routine is another tool you have to help correct the imbalance. But the type and intensity of exercise that you do makes all the difference.
We All Know Exercise Is Important – Here’s Why
Aside from building strength and burning calories, daily movement and exercise of any kind has huge benefits for your overall health. No matter what the state of your hormones may be, regular activity is vital to supporting three functions in your body:
1. Regulating Insulin: Every time you eat, you provide your body with the raw materials it needs to produce energy as well as hormones and enzymes. The carbohydrates you consume are broken down into glucose, which is your main energy source. If your body senses too much glucose floating around, it will secrete the hormone insulin. Some level of insulin secretion is normal, but if you begin to create too much, your body might not be able to make the estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone it needs, since these hormones are in competition for the same raw materials. Regular exercise and movement throughout the day helps use up any excess glucose in the bloodstream to keep your insulin levels low and your hormones balanced.
2. Getting Your Lymphatic System Moving: The lymphatic system plays an important role in the body’s incredibly sophisticated detoxification process that is constantly working to remove things like cellular waste products and toxic substances. This system also plays an important role in the immune system, creating white blood cells that attack foreign invaders like viruses, bacteria, and parasites. Unlike the circulatory system, which relies on the heart to pump blood, the lymphatic system relies on movement and muscle contractions to transport lymphatic fluid. If you sit behind your desk all day, this fluid cannot be properly drained.
3. Detoxification: The body also sheds toxins and waste through bowel movements (BM). Regular BMs – on average, one per day is ideal – allow the body to remove material that is no longer needed, including metabolized hormones like estrogen. A sedentary lifestyle slows down digestion and can lead to constipation. If you’re constipated, those metabolized hormones might be reabsorbed into your system rather than eliminated from the body, which can create a hormonal imbalance.
Have a Hormonal Imbalance? We Have an Exercise Plan for You
Inactivity can disrupt your hormones, but so can many other factors that range from specific health conditions like PCOS and Hashimoto’s disease to lifestyle issues like exposure to endocrine disrupting hormones. With hormonal knowledge comes power – and a more concrete plan for how to use exercise to help bring your body back into balance. So, it’s a good idea to start by having your hormone levels tested so you know where you stand.
Once you have your hormone level results, adjust your exercise routine accordingly to help correct any imbalances and support your unique body.
High: For women with regular periods, estrogen is highest during the first half of the cycle, then falls during the second. But these levels can easily get out of whack. Many women discover they have high estrogen due to the influence of endocrine disrupting chemicals in our daily environments or imbalanced production by the body.
The key to getting rid of excess estrogen is to do everything you can to support your body’s natural detoxification efforts. Prioritize regular movement throughout your day rather than one long workout. Gentle to moderate intensity exercise is best as strenuous sweat sessions may increase cortisol levels and decrease progesterone. Get up from your desk frequently to get more water (hydration also boosts detoxification) and use the restroom. Schedule meetings or phone calls that can be done while walking outside, or use your lunch break to take a 20–40 minute stroll around the neighborhood. Put on some good music and dance around the kitchen while you cook. Exercise doesn’t always have to be structured and, in this case, any movement does your estrogen rebalancing efforts good.
Low: There are a variety of reasons why estrogen might be low, including being underweight. Because of this, if you receive a low estrogen test result or notice a disruption in your menstrual cycle, you might want to consider whether over-exercising or consuming too few nutrients is causing an issue.
Many women also see a drop in estrogen production as they near menopause. As you enter this stage of life, it’s important to prioritize weight bearing exercise to keep your bones strong, as a decrease in estrogen can lead to bone loss over time. In addition to strength training, this can include activities like yoga, hiking, walking, tennis, golf, or dancing. Aim for 30-60 minutes at least 5 days per week and incorporate a variety of types and intensities of exercise to keep your bones healthy and your muscles strong and flexible.
High: Consistently elevated progesterone levels are typically the result of pregnancy, hormone replacement therapy, or fertility treatments. When you are in one of these life stages, a low impact, active lifestyle is best so as to not disrupt the natural balance that your body is trying to achieve in each situation. This might include activities like walking, easy hiking, Pilates, or yoga for at least 30 minutes 5 days per week. Listen to the guidance of your doctor and your own body to determine when you might be ready for more intense exercise.
Low: Progesterone is highest during the second half of your menstrual cycle after ovulation has occurred. Low progesterone often occurs when lifestyle factors have caused an excessive amount of estrogen production. If you learn that your progesterone levels are lower than average, focus on the same exercise guidelines followed by women with high estrogen.
High: Testosterone might be known as the “male sex hormone,” but healthy levels are just as important in women. This hormone helps produce the growth of skeletal muscles in a process that works as something of a feedback loop: testosterone produces muscle, which in turn spurs the production of more testosterone. Therefore, this hormone can be particularly affected by the type and intensity of exercise. If your testosterone is higher than optimal, which can often be found in patients with PCOS, it may be beneficial to stick to lower intensity, gentle exercise like yoga, Pilates, or walking to inhibit continued overproduction of the hormone. For PCOS specifically, it is important to add in regular low impact cardio like cycling or swimming to help manage insulin levels, which will further help to rebalance your hormones.
Low: By the same logic, if your testosterone results are lower than normal, consider adding strength training, body weight exercises, or high intensity interval training into your routine. These more intense forms of exercise will help you build skeletal muscle, which in turn may help your body boost its testosterone production.
High: Cortisol is the famous stress hormone produced whenever your body encounters mental or physical hurdles that spark its fight-or-flight response. Under normal circumstances, a tough workout can be a positive form of stress on the body, causing it to adapt and grow stronger. However, if you’re in a constant high-stress state, high-intensity workouts can create even more of a burden on your body.
If your cortisol results are higher than optimal, consider switching to more gentle forms of exercise until your levels are back in the desired range. Yoga is a great option because it allows you to move while also calming your mind, which helps tell your body that it’s safe to relax. It’s also a good idea to stick to a consistent sleep schedule as cortisol follows a circadian rhythm that is sensitive to change. Try beginning and ending each day with some yoga and meditation to jump start your cortisol rebalancing. First thing in the morning, start with 10-15 minutes of yoga followed by 5 minutes of meditation; before bed, create a wind down routine that includes 5 minutes of stretches and 5 minutes of meditation to help calm your mind so you can drift into a restorative sleep.
Low: DHEA is a hormone that is used to make other hormones, specifically estrogen and testosterone. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that it typically has an inverse relationship with cortisol. When cortisol goes up due to stress or overexercising, your levels of DHEA often go down. If your results show an imbalance of cortisol and DHEA, focus on gentle exercise and creating a consistent sleep routine to help bring these two hormones back into balance.
While there are changes you can make to your exercise routine to support your specific hormone levels, there are two universal rules to remember. First, it doesn’t matter how many weights you lift or how many minutes of yoga you downward dog your way through, it’s nearly impossible to fight hormone imbalances in the face of excessive and prolonged stress. Higher cortisol will ultimately lead to hormonal chaos. So, pair your physical exercise with a little mental exercise – otherwise known as stress management – to make sure you’re getting the most out of your health.
It is also important to keep in mind that you can have too much of a good thing when it comes to exercise. While that daily run or intense spin class gets your heart pumping and endorphins flowing, it could also be affecting the balance of hormones that are essential for a healthy cycle and endocrine system. If you choose to engage in more intense forms of exercise, make sure you’re nourishing your body with a healthy diet (think lots of healthy fats and adequate protein), getting plenty of quality sleep, and allowing your body sufficient recovery time.