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PCOS and Exercise: How much and how often?

PCOS and Exercise: We’ve already looked at the benefits of exercise and have seen that it’s a really important aspect to managing our PCOS. But just how much exercise do we need and what is the best type of exercise for managing our PCOS?

Before we get into that, let’s recap on some of the benefits of exercise. Exercise has been shown to improve (1):

  • insulin sensitivity
  • frequency of ovulation
  • cholesterol
  • body composition

And remember, these benefits are independent of weight loss (you may not lose any weight while exercising but you will still feel the rewards of the above improvements).

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 Exercise and PCOS: The Research

PCOS and exercise yogaSo, what does the research say about exercise and PCOS?

To be honest, there hasn’t been much research into the specific kinds of exercise that is beneficial for PCOS (or none that I could find after hours of trawling Google Scholar). There is a lot of information on exercise and PCOS as a whole but few suggestions of what kinds of exercises we should be doing. There is also a lot of research related to Type 2 diabetes and insulin resistance but these articles don’t specifically look at PCOS.

One particular article found that the intensity, duration and type of exercise did not have any impact on the improvements in PCOS symptoms (2). The bottom line is that any form of exercise is helpful.

One of the main ways that exercise seems to help PCOS is the way in which it helps to manage glucose and insulin. Exercise causes glucose to be taken from the blood and moved into the muscles, lowering the need for insulin at that time and improving the body’s sensitivity to insulin.

Remember that if we can manage insulin, we are better able to manage testosterone, the cause of a lot of our PCOS symptoms.

So, we know exercise is crucial, but just how much and what is the best type of exercise?

Cardio vs. Strength training

Ideally, we should be doing a combination of strength and cardio training as both of these types of exercises give us different benefits (3).

Cardio training causes your heart rate to rise and it uses energy, increasing your total calories used, which will help with weight loss. It has also been shown to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease in women with PCOS (4).

Strength training, on the other hand, builds muscle which is important in raising your basal metabolic rate so that you burn more calories while at rest and while you are exercising.

So, bottom line is that we need to do a combination of strength and cardio exercise. But how much of each?

How much exercise do we need?

PCOS and exercise strengthAn Australian organisation dedicated to providing evidence-based guidelines for the management of PCOS, Jean Hailes, suggest that we should be doing 150 minutes of exercise per week, with 90
minutes of that being moderate to high intensity aerobic exercise (5). So, we’re looking at 30 minutes five times per week, with two of those sessions being resistance or strength training.

How to start and sustain an exercise programme

If you’re new to exercise, I wouldn’t be too worried about doing 150 minutes per week. Just get started! Finding a form of exercise that you enjoy is really important in making it sustainable. Here are some fun exercises you could consider:

  • Zumba
  • Pilates
  • Yoga
  • Aerobic classes
  • Cycling
  • Hiking or walking
  • Swimming

 

The options are endless really.

I have also found exercise DVD’s to be really helpful and I really enjoyed Jillian Michaels’ (she also has PCOS, by the way) “30 Day Shred” DVD. It’s something you can do at home and although it’s quite high intensity, the workouts are roughly 20 minutes each and I found I was able to incorporate that into my day.

Whatever you do decide to take up, keep at it and make sure that you are able to stick to it!

I’d love to hear about how you’re managing t fit exercise into your daily routine and if you have any suggestions of good exercises or DVD’s, please share them with the rest of us. Leave me a comment below, I’d love to hear from you!

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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.

62 Responses

62 Responses

  1. If your insulin resistance improves and you are supplimenting and eating correctly yes you should lose weight that is what a majority of women with pcos are trying to do!

  2. Hey there, thanks for your articles – I love them! I have a question regarding exercise. I was diagnosed with PCOS in May due to high testosterone levels – the most pernicious symptoms it was causing was brain fog, fatigue, and excessive hair loss. Also a bit of facial hair growth. I decided to hold off on treatment to see if my levels would go down naturally with diet and exercise. I had been exercising regularly 5x a week since March (2 months before diagnosis) and my routine was cardio on MWF and strength training on Tuesday and Thursday. All works were HIIT (high interval intensity training). I’m still doing it and I love it because it’s the only social interaction I’m getting and I’ve made good friends. However in the last month, my hair has started falling out a lot again and last week I think I kinda tanked my estrogen levels – was having trouble sleeping, getting hot flashes, my period was really short and vanished after 2.5 days, and severe mood swings. It’s still pretty low right now and I think it’ll carry on like that for the rest of my cycle. I’ve been eating REALLY clean this whole time too. Took out dairy, refined carbs (which I never had a lot of anyway) and really upped my green veggie intake. So why the hair loss and why so much? It’s worrying me and making me feel like I have to go on medication because at this rate, I’ll be bald in 6months. Did I inadvertently boost my testosterone? Or did my low estrogen levels cause testosterone to go really high? I’m confused and don’t want to give up the gym, but I also don’t want to take medication for the hair loss. Have you ever experienced this? Let me know – and thank you so much in advance!

    1. Please cut back on exercise. It sounds counterintuitive, but this coukd be one key issue for you. Try 3 20min HIIT sensions per week, and gentle yoga for the other days and see if your symptoms improve.

  3. Hii,

    I have been diagnosed with PCOD 2 years back and neither am not over weight nor do I have any facial or unwanted hairs but I do not menstruate (periods) at all until & unless i take medicine for the same. I am taking allopathic treatment since then (birth control pills) but as i leave taking medicines, i again do not get any periods. Now I am planning to conceive but no use.
    Kindly advise

  4. Hi my name is Meisie I was diagnosed with Pcos a year and a half ago, I did all tests the doctors r wanted me to do and they found nothing wrong, balanced hormones, insulin levels are normal ,
    Then we did a laparoscopy only to find out the ovaries are not producing any eggs. A shock to me it was but I knew something is wrong as it was 10 yrs straight without my menstrual cycle, I would be lucky in a year to get some. Now I’m married and would like be to conceive, I s not easy but I knew w it’s possible. That is why now I would love to get into a proper routine were I eat healthy and exercise to combat the condition and increase my chances of getting pregnant. At the moment I am on Jasmine so I get regular periods, but It also lowers chances of pregnancy , that’s my worst nightmare .

  5. I am 35 , was told I have p.c.o.s at age 21 ..i have tried metformin 3 times , it made me soooo sick I had to choose my job over the Medicine, I had just told my self “I am a fat girl that’s my life ” I have always had skinny tonned legs , and smaller arms all my weight is in my stomach I am a apple shape ..i have walked / jogged 3 to 4 miles a day my whole life with no weight change ..when I was 24 I was put on birth control and lost 70 pounds in 6 months ( from a size 22 to a 7 ) I still ate what I wanted . As soon as I got off the b/c I gained all the weight back ..i have still always been active with walking at the least 3 miles a day no less then 3 days a week still no weight change recently I met a girl who does weight training (she does not have p.c.o.s) but she encouraged me to try it , scared like the rest of people of getting bulky I didn’t know what to do ..i decided. F it ..if nothing I can stop..it is work a try …well I am down 10 pounds in 18 days . I have more energy and feel so good. I work out Monday threw Sunday with Wednesday off and Sunday off …i do core work outs of Wednesday at home and Sunday is yard work or cleaning the house ..i don’t eat pasta cause I don’t like it , no soda , and try to eat high protein snacks. I do still eat bad every once in a while for a bday dinner or family outing but I will get the burger and a salad or just not over eat ..i feel like alot of people over eat and don’t realize it ( maybe that was just me ) but the sizes at Restaurants are over sized big time …i hope this weight loss continues..but I wanted to share my experience

    1. Hi Leanna,
      I am 26 and I found out when I was 18 and I have just gained weight and I try won’t move the weight. I am to the point where I have just accepted I am a fat girl.

      Keeley

      1. Hi hun,

        I was 16 years-old when I was diagnosed with PCOS. I just want to say that it’s better to get it under control now vs when you get to my age *coughgoingon33coughcough*. I’ve learned for me, the things that I’ve done is just pace myself. Walking counts towards weight loss and don’t stress yourself too much. I hope that you see this as again, it’s much harder once you’ve pack on the weight and it will take a time. (My highest weight was 236 and I’m now 210/09.8 lbs)

        I wish you nothing but the best and please keep going.

    2. Hello! Congratulations and keep up the great work! Consistency is definitely key wrt weight loss and PCOS! And remember that too much carbohydrates and sugars are our worst enemy! You’re on the right track! Moderation is key! Do you mind telling us which b/c you were on? It’s such a trial and error process for me with bc…Diane 35 made me sick and sad! Thank you!

    3. Everything you have described is identical to my problem is also had pcos at 21 & now I’m 36 still struggling.. tried everything & anything to help unfortunately due to my age my pcos has got worse, what type of muscle excise do you do? I don’t want to become overly muscly lol
      I go gym 3-4 times a week but no change & I gave started taking metfomin again.

  6. Hello, PCOS is new to me and I am having a lot of trouble with weight gain. Like it is getting out of control! Any ‘diet’ suggestions? I am already gluten free and mostly dairy free. Sugar is a bad bad crutch for me. I’ve heard intermittent fasting is beneficial. Any advice would be great. Thanks!

    1. Similar situation! I started the ketogenic diet (more like a lifestyle change than diet, really) and it’s been wonderful! Lost 40 lb in 4 months and still going strong 🙂 Very easy to stick to!

    2. I also was diagnosed with PCOS maybe 2 month ago, my doctor recommended mediterranean diet. It wasnt hard for me at the beginning, maybe first two weeks,maybe because i was scared at the beginning, cause i have some more health problems. But now i have it so hard, have problem with sugar and i miss pasta so much… But i did lost weight even though i had few cheat days, and mostly i didn’t do any exercise, after reading this article i sure will start and see how it goes. Good luck to you!

  7. Wow didnt know Jullian Micheals had PCOS. Would have never known. This article is very uplifting and inspiring. Days I dont believe Ill be able to overcome this diagnoses but after reading this I know I can.

    1. I wish I was better at exercise. I have pretty crazy asthma so it’s hard to find ways to exercise when I cant breath. I’ve started just walking with my 7 month old in his stroller. I hope to do more once it get warmer.

  8. I was diagnosed with pcod so I changed my diet fully and joined a gym and I work very hard at gym with aerobics, cicuit training and machines but I lost just 1 kg in 1 month ! I’m following almost everything not even having a cheat day in my diet no sugary things,no junk,no oily food,no refined food items! I need to lose 18 kg to have my ideal weight! please help

    1. Change happens slowly in some and fast in others. It was very slow for me too , but it eventually happened and I saw clearer skin and toned body after looong time! Even if u dont see changes on scale , it doesn’t mean your fat isn’t converting into muscle (muscle is heavier so the weighing scale can trick ur mind) , people give up right before their body is beginning to change

  9. I reached 230 pounds. My doctor put me on metformin and after getting over the terrible side effects I started eating 1,100 calories a day and started working out. I walk/run on the treadmill at least 30 minutes a day with a max of 60 minutes. Then I do weight training with light weights and high reps. I’ve lost 18 pounds in a month! I still have to use birth control to start my period but will be seeing about getting off when I’m under 200.

    1. Anything under 1500 calories a day is going to stress the body out and put it in survival mode. This is actually damaging to the metabolic process.

    2. yay congratulations don’t stop don’t listen my Dr. have been telling me 1,200 cal a day is perfectly fine so keep pushing I know you can do this.

    3. Make sure your eating enough protein, it helps bulks lean mass, while allowing your body to lose, IF your not eating enough protein (body weight x 10) then your body will begin to lean the muscle you already have. TRUST me you will see bigger results eating the proper amount of protien– Lower calories will only work short term. Make sure you try to keep cardio to 30% of your workouts, and resistance training higher, It will raise you BMR(basal metabolic rate) and allow you to burn while at rest. Great job!!

    4. Hi, your post has really enlightened me your in the exact same situation as me my doctor has also put me on metaformin. But I’m really struggling I do slimming world so I mean my eating is quite good but I do an hour and a half of dancing a week. I’ve been on metaformin for about 3-4 weeks now and I’ve not seen a change at all. I’m just wondering what it is you have been eating with sticking to 1,500 calories a day and how much weight you’ve lost now? This would be soo helpful to me if you could let me know because it’s literally the same situation as me and I am desperate to lose weight

    1. Hi Elizabeth! I’m also worried about weight train increasing testosterone levels so if you found some information about it regarding pcos please write a comment! Thank you!

      1. Weight training will not increase your testosterone levels. If anything, it helps with being able to recover quicker when weight training and depending on the type of training/diet you can become more defined or lose fat at a better rate

  10. I have found anything with weights works horribly. The pcos makes me bulk like a guy . My thighs will go to pure muscle in a matter of weeks even on low resistance, yet be bigger then if I don’t bother . Great they aren’t fat but in jeans they look worse. I also loose weight in odd ways, my thighs are the same around , each leg as my whole waist , you’ll see ribs but I’ll see no change in the legs size wise , they just get harder. The only thing that ever worked was litterally eating grapefruit all day and salad for dinner . It was also the only way I could beat feeling tired and bloated.

    1. For me, those aren’t good reasons to avoid strength training. I’d rather be bulkier with better insulin responsiveness and be healthier overall than have less bulk. Plus, if you’re really that concerned about your body becoming stronger, the advice in this article about cardio is important since you can absolutely gain muscle and keep most of your body fat at the same time. I’ve always been prone to rapid muscle gain, even before I was diagnosed. I view it as a blessing!

    2. Make sure your eating enough protein, it helps bulks lean mass, while allowing your body to lose, IF your not eating enough protein (body weight x 10) then your body will begin to lean the muscle you already have. TRUST me you will see bigger results eating the proper amount of protien– . I Said the same thing a few comments above, this may help you from bulking up. Protien protien protien! 🙂

  11. My mother has endometriosis and when I was 13 we found out I had it too. Three years later I was diagnosed with PCOS and have been struggling with my weight for quite some time. I always wondered why everybody in my family was skinny except me. I started exersising and my weight dropped and my periods regulated within a year. Now I’m 18 working full time and going to school full time and I don’t have the time to exersise anymore. My weight is returning and my periods are getting later and later every month. Is there any kind of high intensity workouts for people on a busy schedule? I don’t want to lose the progress I’ve already made or go back to the unbearable pain.

    1. Hi Brandi, if Crossfit is available in your area it is fantastic. The weights are supposed to help with insulin resistance and there is a 15 minute high intensity workout at the end. I feel great since I started it a few months ago.

    2. Hi Brandi you should look into the kayla itsines bikini body challenge. it is a 12 week exercise program. each workout is HIIT and only goes for 30 minutes..look her up and check out the amazing results! Goodluck 🙂

    3. My trainer told me to do Tabata. It can be done almost anywhere in 30 mins or less and is very high intensity. It also is good for light strength training.

        1. Hi Sarah,

          Tabata is a type of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) workout where you workout for a total of 4 mins.They are supposed to be your longest and toughest 4 mins.
          You do eight rounds (20 secs, where you work really hard) and 10 sec recovery. You comple 8 such rounds.
          I always try to incorporate 2-3 Tabata in my workout routine during the week. An example of a typical 20-30 min workout with 1-2 mins rest in between is
          Sprints
          push-ups
          Squats
          Kettlebell
          Burpees

          Tabata and HIIT has really helped me to stay fit and avoid the weight gain due to PCOS.

  12. Every time I start exercising again I get totally and utterly exhausted – tired, cranky, swollen tonsils. Does exercise affect anyone else in this way? I would love to know. Thank you.

    1. Exercise should have no relation to swollen tonsils– what kind of exercise so you do? Have you ever had tonsillitis?

      1. Luckily, since my last post, exercise is not affecting me in the same way. When I wrote that in April I was doing running and spin classes but was not eating correctly. I have since changed my exercise and diet and feel like a new person! I was diagnosed with PCOS around April and have taken lots of steps to improve my symptoms. I have nearly cleared my acne completely. I totally avoid sugar, dairy and gluten and even though there are lots of people who say these things are ‘not that bad for you’ I have found giving them up to be a huge help. To give up sugar I read Sarah Wilson’s ‘I Quit Sugar’. I also read books by Dr. Holford and Dr. Hyman which were fantastic sources of information for PCOS sufferers and women in general.

    2. Yes, since I turned 31 and was diagnosed with mild PCOS, exercise affects me this way. Sore throat and swollen tonsils is an indication that your adrenal system thinks you are under “stress” caused when you just start to exercise. This happens to me. PCOS can affect your adrenal system. Physical “stress” and emotional stress are perceived the same way by your adrenal system. I always used to get sick whenever I would take a long break from working out and then start again. Or, the glands in my neck would swell and I would experience joint swelling and extreme fatigue…I mean I would get wiped out! I am a former NCAA D 1 athlete and I was accustomed training at a very intense pace every single day, sometimes twice a day. I never had any issues with PCOS or even knew about it till I was in my 30s. Same thing happened to my mom. It was like late onset or something. Anyhow, I was diagnosed with mild PCOS recently and it explains so many thing that started happening to me in my 30s.

      1. Oh wow thanks so much for your comment. That used to happen to me when I took up running. I kept getting tonsilitis!! Do you have any suggestions as to how you got back into exercise without the fatigue? I get that so much, every time I exercise and it’s so annoying because people without PCOS find that exercise gives them energy and I wish the same would happen for me!! Thanks 🙂

      2. Hi! I’d love to hear more about how you manage your PCOS. I was a high performing varsity athlete for years, had regular periods, worked out a LOT and no problems. Now that I’m about to turn 30 my hormones are out of whack… likely due to my desk job, stress, etc. Even when I work out I don’t really loose a lot of weight, and definitely carry fat in my belly (which I never used to have). Cardio works, but I don’t think it’s great for my adrenals.

  13. I love how all of the blog posts are so down to earth and to the point, i have been looking for answers on just how much to exercise with PCOS and all i was getting before this was basically “a lot” or “more then a normal person” ect. so i was very happy to read this and find out what’s really needed and that it’s doable.

  14. I am suffering from pcos n my doc has advised me to take diabeta sr 500… So is dis beneficial… N i do hav acne n open pores because of dis..

  15. Hi there. Every time I start to exercise and get healthy , my menstrual cycle starts. But it is not a “regular”period. I will bleed heavily for days,weeks, sometimes months. I will be honest and admit that is one reason why I don’t excercise. Will this get better? Does anyone else have this problem?

    1. hi ya i had the same issue too but more days not weeks and months ……. grateful for the bleed tho cos im married and we are trying for kids. But i still wonder why?

  16. I was diagnosed with pcos at the age of 35. I asked my doctor why it took so long to confirm my diagnoses and he said it was because i was able to conceive two beautiful kids:)( now 20 an 15) Iam very thankful for that, however i lived most of my life thinking thinking that i jtust didnt have what it takes to be lean and accept the fact that i was different than the majority of women. I would diet and excersise with minimal success. Since than I have learned much about pcos. Ive been able to maintain my weight through low carb and excercise. Ive recently inocorperated weight training and i hope this will help me more. Unfortunetly, I have passed pcos to my daughter. Although she is a beautiful young woman she is struggling with the same issues as i.

    1. Hi Alicia, I was diagnosed fairly young, as your daughter has been. If she starts up a regular exercise regimen now, she has the best chances of being fairly symptom-free– what do you both do for exercise?

      1. Quitting sugar is not easy– it’s as addictive as any addictive drug– and that’s definitely still my weakest point.

        But the weight training is awesome bc that increases the uptake of glucose to keep blood sugar levels lower overall.

        I started doing INSANITY, the BeachBody in-home workout program b/c I now live in an area with few gyms, none of them close.

        Im hoping those consistent hard-core workouts will help with my symptoms– my skin and hair thinning etc etc and will keep insulin resistance problems at bay.

        Thanks for letting me know about the book about quitting sugar!

        I worked in cancer research for a while, and sugar was seen as a huge risk factor in not just diabetes, but cancer as well.

        Take care,
        Emily

        1. Emily, i just saw your post about Insanity. for the past 2 years i have done Insanity. i completed it 3 times and i still stand 5″3 and weigh 237. i lost 40 pounds after doing it and the moment i stopped immediately started gaining it all back, in 4 short months i gained all my weight back. I eat clean and put in my time with exercise. i recently went to a herbal nutrionalist because i do have pcos and i want to cure it without medicine and she told me that Insanity is the worst form of exercise we can do. (great, i just wasted 2 years of my life) she said that our bodies should never go into that drastic mode for more than 7 minutes because our pancreas secretes more insulin and yadda yadda we know what happens from there. she said your better off doing the treadmill everyday for 45 minutes switching from low incline to high incline. never bringing your heart rate over 145. just thought id share with you what happened to me! hopefully its helpful.

  17. Ladies let me encourage you to just start. I’m not skinny or super fit but I started running about two months ago and now do 8km twice a week, and a long run of 10km on weekends. Because I increased the distance very slowly (only 10% increments weekly) it does not tire me out and I also avoided injury. When nothing else is really working I have my run to pick me up.
    A running partner helps – but if you’re like me (as a therapist I spend all day talking/being talked to) it’s great to have an hour of silence 🙂

    Taryn thanks for all the info and support.

    x annie

  18. Wow, I had no idea about Jillian having PCOS either! She’s amazing 🙂 Her Ripped in 30 DVD is another alternative to the 30 Day Shred if you want a shorter high intensity workout. It’s very similar (using her 3-2-1 system)and just a little bit longer.

  19. Wow, I did not know Jillian was PCOS! I LOVE the 30 Day Shred! I used to mix up the 30 Day with Zumbia.

    1. hi…i have irregular periods.my doctor told me to take krimson 35.but there is no improvement.its getting worse now.i didn’t take the medicine regularly last month as i don’t evn know when my actual periods begins and when stops.its keep bleeding almost all the time.am a pcos patient.please reply..n if i am suggest what should i do

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