If you are of reproductive age or have ever struggled with infertility, it is likely that you have heard of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Affecting 6-12% of women of reproductive age in the US alone (approximately 5 million), perhaps you know someone who has PCOS, or maybe you’ve personally struggled with this lifelong health condition yourself. From difficulty becoming pregnant to acne, to unwanted hair growth and weight gain, the symptoms and presentation of PCOS can vary from person to person, and while some symptoms are strikingly clear, others can be less obvious. With no clear-cut cure for PCOS, women are often left wondering what they can do to help with their various symptoms. This leads to the question: can exercise help with PCOS symptoms?
What is PCOS?
Before we delve into the relationship between exercise & PCOS, let’s first take a closer look at what this health condition is. PCOS is a lifelong condition that spans well past childbearing years. While it is still widely unknown what the causes of PCOS are, it is evident that higher-than-normal androgen (male hormones that females carry) levels play a vital role, as elevated androgen levels can stop ovulation and cause some of the tell-tale symptoms of PCOS: infertility, irregular periods, heavy periods, excess body and facial hair (known as hirsutism), thinning hair on the head, and acne. Other symptoms of PCOS may include skin darkening, oily skin, cysts on the ovaries, obesity, and/or weight-gain. Family history and carrying excess body weight (both of which are related to insulin-resistance) can also contribute to this condition. Women with PCOS are often insulin resistant, meaning their bodies’ cells do not respond to the effects of insulin, and this unfortunately increases their risk for developing type 2 diabetes. In addition to infertility, women with PCOS, especially those that are overweight, are at risk for developing additional serious health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, endometrial cancer, stroke, trouble with cholesterol, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, and mental health issues including anxiety and depression.
Can Exercise Help?
So, can exercise help with any of the aforementioned symptoms of PCOS? Absolutely. While we can’t control our family history, fortunately we can control our physical activity levels (i.e., exercise), diet, and lifestyle, which, in turn, can help control our weight– an essential component of PCOS symptom management. Essentially, physical activity and good nutrition can help regulate hormones (i.e., elevated androgens such as testosterone), which can ultimately help ease certain PCOS symptoms. For women that are overweight, weight loss itself may be enough to regulate their menstrual cycles, or at least make them more regular. Furthermore, weight loss may improve both cholesterol as well as insulin levels, and even improve acne and excess hair growth. In regards to becoming pregnant, women who are overweight may find they successfully ovulate following weight loss. For women that experience painful periods, exercise can also help ease the pain. And let’s not forget about the mental health benefits associated with exercise! Exercise may allow for the increase in production of those “feel-good” neurotransmitters, endorphins; and as previously mentioned, PCOS is linked to depression and anxiety, so the mental health benefits associated with exercise are certainly nothing short of remarkable. Moral of the story: exercise can be a game-changer for PCOS symptoms, both physically and mentally. Exercise is medicine.
Types of Exercises for PCOS
What are some examples of exercises that can specifically help with PCOS symptoms? While exercise is not one-size-fits-all, and while women with PCOS are likely to experience the benefits of any type of exercise, cardio, high intensity interval training (HIIT), and strength training workouts are at the forefront.
Cardio exercise can essentially play a vital role in heart health and can decrease the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease, which, as previously mentioned, women with PCOS may be at increased risk for due to weight gain and insulin resistance. Furthermore, one study found that vigorous cardio activity led to improvements in both body mass index (BMI) and insulin resistance in women with PCOS. As for HIIT, these workouts function by burning through fat both during the workout itself as well as after the workout via muscle repair and oxygen restoration. One study even found that HIIT workouts led to the most significant improvements in insulin resistance in women with PCOS when compared to strength training. That is not to say, however, that strength training doesn’t play a significant role in PCOS symptom management. In fact, one study found that when it came to reducing testosterone levels, strength training was the most effective exercise method in women with PCOS.
As for frequency of exercise for women with PCOS, five workouts per week is ideal, with the minimum recommendation being two to three workouts per week. Even if you’re not necessarily working out, it is beneficial to try to be active everyday.
While the importance of exercise for PCOS can’t be stressed enough, it is also important to note that overtraining is not a good thing. Overtraining could actually make menstrual cycles more irregular due to a spike in cortisol levels. Long story short: don’t overdo it. Furthermore, please make sure you are cleared by a medical doctor for participation in exercise before starting any fitness training program.
If you’re struggling with PCOS and would like to experience just how exercise can help you manage your symptoms, take the first step and contact Klasik Fit. We have trainers that specialize in women’s health and infertility that understand PCOS and all of its associated challenges on both a personal and professional level. You are not alone. Come get Klasik Fit. You can. You will.