Exercise and PCOS: Benefits and Tips for Getting Started
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) has many symptoms, including irregular periods, weight gain, tiredness, acne and excess facial and body hair. In many cases, the well being of women with the condition is also impacted.
The good news is there are things you can do to help yourself and control your PCOS symptoms. This article will explain how exercise can benefit women with PCOS and give handy tip to get you on the move.
Exercise and PCOS symptoms
As well as boosting your general health, here are the main PCOS symptoms that may be improved with regular physical activity:
Up to 70 percent of women with PCOS are thought to be affected by insulin resistance.i This is when your body doesn’t respond normally to the hormone and often makes your insulin levels higher. This can potentially cause type 2 diabetes. Understanding the link between PCOS and type 2 diabetes can be key to managing your condition.
Insulin resistance is thought to be linked to a number of PCOS symptoms, including irregular periods, fertility problems and weight gain. Too much insulin in your bloodstream may also affect your ovaries by increasing the production of testosterone. The production of this male hormone causes other PCOS symptoms such as excess facial and body hair, oily skin and acne.
Any variation of exercise can improve how your insulin works in the body, whether this is running, walking, swimming, or gymnastics. Many studies have found that it does not matter how old you are, what you weigh, or what your current level of fitness is, any amount of physical exercise can improve insulin sensitivity in the body.ii
Many women with PCOS are overweight or obese. Similarly, weight gain is also linked to a higher risk of insulin resistance, as excess body fat makes you produce more of the hormone.
Exercise burns calories and can be a helpful weight management tool. Exercising for the first time can seem quite intimidating. However, reassuring things is that even the smallest effort can make an impact on your symptoms.
Another common symptom of PCOS is irregular periods. This includes infrequent or completely absent periods. Irregular periods can lead to fertility problems because it means you’re not ovulating regularly or at all. However, researchers reviewing studies that focus on exercise and PCOS have found moderate-intensity exercise improves ovulation, and that improvements aren't dependent on the type of exercise, frequency or length of an exercise session. The same study also found that exercise reduces insulin resistance and leads to weight loss.iii If your PCOS is causing irregular periods, here are some more tips on how to cope.
Living with the symptoms of PCOS can be stressful. Women with the condition are thought to have a higher risk of being diagnosed with depression or another mental health illness.iv Plus, if you’re feeling low, it can be hard to motivate yourself to get up and get moving.
But regular exercise can boost your mood and, according to the NHS, it’s especially useful for people with mild to moderate depression.v Exercise triggers the release of feel-good hormones called endorphins. Some also believe it works because it distracts you from your worries.
If you have PCOS, you also have an increased risk of having high cholesterol, which can, in turn, increase your risk of cardiovascular disease. However, if you’re physically active, it can help keep your cholesterol levels healthy, as exercise is widely believed to help increase your levels of HDL (‘good’) cholesterol.vi This is the type of cholesterol we all need more of, as it helps remove LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol from your blood. Knowing how to monitor your cholesterol could help you to manage your PCOS.
How much is exercise enough?
If you’re not very active at the moment, all this talk about exercising regularly may seem overwhelming. But the good news is you don’t have to launch into a military fitness-style exercise routine to get results. Any exercise is better than none, and even a quick 10-minute walk can help you relax and clear your head.
The official UK guidelines for physical activity in adults say you should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity such as cycling or brisk walking every week. They also suggest you do strength exercises on two or more days a week that work all the major muscles – this includes things like lifting weights, working with resistance bands, doing exercises that use your own body weight, gardening, and yoga.
Indeed, weight training may be particularly good for those with PCOS, as higher muscle mass has been found to be linked to improved insulin sensitivity.vii
How do I start?
When you start, work your way up to doing 150 minutes a week gradually, especially if you’re not used to exercising. You can split up those 150 minutes however you like, as long as you exercise for at least 10 minutes a time.
Those 150 minutes are a minimum recommendation, so if you reach that particular target and are starting to notice the benefits, you may want to do more.
It is important to not to do too much, either by exercising too intensely, for too long or too often. Over-exercising can wear you out, and if you become tired you may also lose interest in exercising altogether. You also need to give yourself time in between workouts for your body to recover.
Another way to boost your activity levels and contribute towards your 150 minutes a week is to be more active in your daily life. For instance, try walking or cycling to the shops instead of driving or taking public transport, getting off the bus a stop or two early and walking the rest of the way or taking the stairs instead of the lift or an escalator.
Always check with your GP before starting any new exercise plan, especially if you have any concerns about your health or you haven’t been physically active for a while. Explore the rest of our hub for more advice on living with PCOS.
Marshall, J.C., Dunaif, A. (2012 Jan). All Women With PCOS Should Be Treated For Insulin Resistance. Fertil Steril. 97(1); 18-22. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3277302/
Colberg, S.R. (Sep 2015). Increasing Insulin Sensitivity. Diabetes Self Management. Available online: https://www.diabetesselfmanagement.com/managing-diabetes/treatment-approaches/increasing-insulin-sensitivity/
Harrison, C., et al. (March 2011). Exercise therapy in polycystic ovary syndrome: a systematic review. Human Reproduction Update. Volume 17, Issue 2: 171–183. Available online: https://academic.oup.com/humupd/article/17/2/171/692261
Polycystic ovary syndrome is associated with adverse mental health and neurodevelopmental outcomes: a retrospective observational study. (2017 Nov). Society for Endocrinology BES 2017 Conference, Harrogate, UK. Available online: https://www.endocrinology.org/press/press-releases/women-with-pcos-should-be-screened-for-mental-health-disorders/
Exercise for depression. (2016). NHS. [Date accessed: 2018]. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3573592/
Mann, S., Beedie, C., Jimenez, A. (2014). Differential Effects of Aerobic Exercise, Resistance Training and Combined Exercise Modalities on Cholesterol and the Lipid Profile: Review, Synthesis and Recommendations. Sports Med. 44(2): 211–221.
Srikanthan, P., Karlamangla, A.S. (1 September 2011). Relative Muscle Mass Is Inversely Associated with Insulin Resistance and Prediabetes. Findings from The Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. Volume 96, Issue 9: 898–2903. Available online: https://academic.oup.com/jcem/article/96/9/2898/2834715