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Cardio Exercise and PCOS

I have really enjoyed Erika’s previous article and am thrilled to bring you another one. The question of cardio is one that I often get and so in this article, Erika answers our questions about cardio exercise and PCOS.

Many of you contacted me after reading my article on “Belly Fat and PCOS.” I’m very excited and encouraged by all of your questions and comments! It’s been amazing to discover that so many women with PCOS are exercising!

Some of the women who reached out to me were fitness newbies while others spent more time at the gym than me! Regardless of experience level, it seemed that many women are under the impression that cardio exercise is the best way to burn calories and, more specifically, the more cardio you do, the more weight you will lose.

Aerobic exercise is one of several tools you have at your disposal when trying to lose weight. Unfortunately, many women who are dedicated to their fitness unknowingly sabotage their progress by misusing cardio. The treadmill is not a magic wrecking ball you can use to knock out that extra glass (or three) of wine or the slice of cake you had on Friday night.

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It is 100% true that exercise burns calories and that if you exercise enough, you will burn enough calories to lose weight. However, this concept of weight control is flawed! Overeating is easy to do and can be done in mere minutes. Burning off an over-indulgent diet is difficult and takes hours of physical activity everyday!

I’ve found that when women get stuck in this line of thinking they often develop an unhealthy relationship with food and exercise.

I want you to avoid this pitfall! You should love both food and exercise! Nothing will have a more powerful influence over your health than what you eat and how often you move.

Start thinking of aerobic exercise as the shovel you use to dig a strong foundation for good health and a fit body. The objective of any exercise program is to stimulate physiological changes in the body that will enhance your health. The goal of your exercise program should never be to “burn off” the bad nutrition choices you’ve made!

The Two Types of Cardio Exercise

cardio-exercise-and-pcos-runningThere are two types of cardio that I recommend including in your workout programs: high intensity interval training (HIIT) and steady-state moderate intensity cardio.
HIIT workouts use intervals to elicit a high intensity level from the exerciser. The trainee will alternate between bouts of extremely difficult fast-paced exercise and bouts of very low intensity work. For example, you might alternate between sprinting up a steep hill and walking on a flat surface.

Steady-state cardio is what most women think of when they hear the words ‘cardio workout.’ Steady-state workouts involve performing a repetitive movement at a steady, moderate pace for a sustained period of time. The most common examples of this are jogging or using an elliptical trainer for 40-90 minutes.

HIIT is especially important for women with PCOS because of the physiological effect it has on insulin sensitivity. Several medical studies have found that HIIT workouts are more effective than other forms of exercise at increasing insulin sensitivity.

A study published in the International Journal of Obesity compared young women who did HIIT workouts with young women who did steady-sate cardio workouts. The women who did HIIT had a 31% decrease in fasting insulin concentrations compared to 9% for the steady state group. The HIIT exercisers also lost, on average, 11.2% of their fat mass while the steady state group did not lose any fat.

Plus, there are an abundance of medical studies which prove that HIIT is the most time effective aerobic exercise for fat burning and stimulates more muscle growth then steady-state cardio.

In the face of all of this research, some may wonder if you should just skip steady-state cardio in favor of HIIT. Many fitness experts have taken this approach, but I feel it’s not the best choice for PCOS women.

Steady-state cardio has plenty of physiological benefits. In my opinion, the most important of these is that moderate to low intensity cardio is restorative.

I don’t think I am alone when I say that having PCOS is stressful. Whether you’re TTC or just trying to be healthy, PCOS can certainly bring on anxiety. Steady-state cardio, especially when it is done outdoors has been shown to ease psychological stress. In fact, some mental health professionals prescribe outdoor cardio as a treatment for anxiety and depression.

In addition to helping you renew your mind, moderate intensity aerobic exercise also helps your body recover from stress. Steady-state cardio stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system which is the division of your nervous system that shuts down your “fight or flight” responses to stress and allows you to rest and recover.

Moderate and low intensity exercise will help you recover from high intensity workouts. Moderate intensity aerobic workouts help increase blood flow to damaged muscle tissues and boost your recovery. Taking a day off from any physical activity is really not necessary for recovery especially since most of us spend our days seated at a desk and our evenings sitting on a couch. A moderate intensity cardio workout, like a brisk walk, is often the better choice.

A Balanced Cardio Workout Schedule

My suggestion to women with PCOS is to reap the benefits of both types of cardio. If you want to stay lean and healthy, you can’t go wrong with using a combination of HIIT workouts and moderate intensity cardio workouts.

I recommend doing one or two 20-30 minute HIIT workouts each week. You’ll have to decide what’s best for you based off how often you strength train and how quickly you recover from intense exercise. Be sure to warm-up properly and wait at least 24 hours before doing another high intensity workout like HIIT or strength training.


cardio-exercise-and-pcos-walkingOnce or twice a week, spend 30-45 minutes doing a moderate intensity cardio workout. Do not do any vigorous exercise on this day. The idea is to give your body a break and promote recovery, not to challenge yourself. You should be able to carry on a light conversation during this workout.

No matter what type of exercise you are doing, please remember that it is a tool you are using to enhance the quality of your life. Challenge yourself and allow yourself to recover, but never punish yourself or push yourself too far!

Love exercise, love food and love yourself!

Thanks, Erika! We would love to hear your thoughts and comments about how exercise has helped your PCOS. Also, what is your best form of exercise. Leave us a comment and let us know!

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Tarryn Poulton

Tarryn Poulton

Tarryn Poulton is a PN1 Certified Nutrition Coach and PCOS expert who has been a leader in the online PCOS space for over 8 years. Tarryn has the support of leading clinicians from around the world who support her scientific approach to understanding and talking about PCOS this includes all medical journals and ongoing research. You can read more about Tarryn and the team here.

14 Responses

14 Responses

  1. Hello!

    How do you feel about spin class? We do a lot of heavy resistance climbs combined with short sprints. Seems along the lines of a HIIT work out. It’s around 50 mins total.

    I usually do spin class 2-3 times a week, pilates reformer 1 time a week and yoga 1 time a week. It’s been working well for me, at least I think so!

  2. Thanks for a great article. I gained 100lbs in about 6 months. Come to find out I have PCOS. I really need help understanding this. I have personal trainer, she made me a walking plan for my treadmill with lots of hills and fast and slow paces. I’m so depressed over my weight it’s so hard up lose. I’m glad your article seems to back up what my trainer is trying. Thanks!

  3. What about swimming? I have trouble with HIT cardio even on an elliptical because oh past surgeries for my ankles, would swimming be an effective use to weightloss?

    1. Swimming is an excellent cardio workout. You might be able to use interval training in part of your swimming program.

      I think that a combination of strength training, swimming, and a proper diet would help you with your weight loss goals.

  4. This is great information. I keep trying to do high-intensity or HIIT every day, and I just wear myself out in no time PLUS I stress my body out beyond recovery…sometimes it would take DAYS to recover. I needed this input. It’s so hard to find good advice and everyone seems to have their own idea of “what you should be doing,” and I honestly haven’t been benefitting from any of it. I’ve got to share this with my husband as well. I think he needs to hear this.

    Maybe this will help balance my mood swings as well…super-bonus 😉

    1. Thanks Georgia, I am glad you liked the article! Exercise is a great way to elevate mood and improve your bodies response to stress. Hopefully these added benefits will help with mood swings!

  5. I really struggle with cardio. After-the-fact I have a lot of pain/pressure around my ovaries and sometimes it hurts so much during the workout that I can’t continue. Any suggestions?

    1. Hannah,
      I am sorry you are experiencing this. I would suggest talking to your Doc. To be honest, that is a problem that is beyond my expertise. It might not be your ovaries it could be a pulled muscle or something much more complex.

      Sorry I can’t be more helpful.

    1. Danielle,
      Yoga is fine for women with PCOS! The best kind of exercise is always the kind you enjoy doing and will do consistently. If your particularly interested in fat loss I would add in some high intensity training too.

  6. I love cardio exercise, I love doing Body attack at the gym, but I agree when I was on top of my weight I was going weights as well as cardio.

  7. Hi!

    I LOVE cardio. I conjunction with Yoga for my activities, I love intensive cardio. My favorite is Zumba and I take Zumba class at least 3 days a week not to mention jogging. It makes me feel really great, helps in balancing my moods a little more and it has made a difference in my body composition as well.

    Thanks for the post 🙂


    1. You’re most welcome! I am glad exercise has been able to keep you both happy and healthy! A good workout does wonders for my mood too! Whenever I feel grumpy I try to raise my heart rate- it is a great quick fix!

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