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PCOS and Exercise – Your Questions Answered

I recently asked the women on my Facebook page what questions they had about PCOS and exercise. Erika Volk, personal trainer, kindly answered those questions for us!

What exercise helps more with weight loss?

Ok, first I want to point out that the role of exercise in weight loss is often misunderstood. It is true that exercise burns calories. Exercise enough and you’ll burn enough calories to lose weight.

The problem with this line of thinking is that overeating is easy to do – and burning off 3 slices of pizza and a couple of beers is difficult! The goal of your exercise program should never be to “burn off” the bad nutrition choices you’ve made! Instead, use exercise to improve the way your body functions so that it’s easier for you to lose weight through a healthy lifestyle.

The best way for women with PCOS to achieve this is through a combination of strength training and high-intensity cardio. Strength training increases the size of skeletal muscle and enhances that muscles’ ability to manage glucose. So, basically, your new and improved muscles will boost your metabolic rate (the number of calories your body needs to survive) and decreases insulin resistance – win! Research studies have found that high-intensity cardio is more effective than traditional moderate-paced cardio at increasing insulin sensitivity. Plus, high-intensity cardio takes less time – another win!

How much should you exercise every day to start turning PCOS around?

PCOS-and-exercise-your-questions-answered-runningThere’s no one-size-fits-all rule I can give you. The important thing is to follow a program that is suitable to your lifestyle while still giving you results. Don’t set yourself up for frustration and failure by undertaking a workout program that is not conducive to your schedule.

All that said, I have some guidelines that work well for most women:

  • Strength train 3 times a week on nonconsecutive days.
  • Do 20-30 minutes of high-intensity cardio once or twice a week.
  • On days when you do not have a workout planned, spend at least 30 minutes moving around. For example, you could walk to and from work, do gentle yoga, or play tag with your kids.
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What is the best balance between “restorative exercises” like yoga and high-intensity interval exercise?

I’ve read about the benefits of each, but I am not sure what to conclude!

Strength training and high-intensity cardio are ideal for addressing the metabolic aspects of PCOS. Ideally, you should balance out these intense workouts with activities that stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is the division of your nervous system that shuts down your “fight or flight” responses to stress and allows you to rest and recover. Walking, gentle yoga and Tai Chi are just a few forms of exercise that fall into this category. I recommend doing 1-3 restorative exercise sessions a week on days when you do not workout.

How much recovery time you need between workouts might be different than someone else’s needs. Most women need two days of recovery each week. However, if you aren’t sleeping well, have poor nutrition or unmanaged stress, your ability to recover from intense exercise could become compromised. If you find that you have a hard time recovering from your workouts, add an extra recovery day to your weekly program and monitor your reaction. You should also look into the other factors I mentioned like sleep quality and nutrition.

A note about yoga:

I am a huge fan of yoga. In fact, I get in a couple of sessions a week. However, yoga comes in a variety of styles. Some forms of yoga are intense workouts while others are gentle and restorative. If you want to use yoga as a recovery activity, look for classes or videos that are described as being gentle and restorative.

Won’t strength training make me bulk up?

PCOS-and-exercise-your-questions-answered-strength-trainingFor the girls who like to do the heavier workouts, not just cardio, will that make PCOS worse because of the adverse hormones from the muscle increase?

I get asked this question a lot! And I totally understand why. It seems logical. In the short term, women get a boost of testosterone from strength training. That doesn’t sound like a good thing for PCOS!

I cannot point to an individual medical study to give you conclusive proof, but I have personally consulted with an Endocrinologist, an Exercise Physiologist and combed through the research on this matter. Experts agree that strength training is good for PCOS.

Why? Strength training is a proven method of managing insulin resistance and obesity. Insulin resistance and obesity exacerbate hyperandrogenism in women with PCOS. Improved insulin sensitivity and weight reduction will ultimately improve hyperandrogenism.

How do you keep from bulking up with muscle?

This is a complicated question because the answer involves a mix of exercise programming, personal aesthetic preferences, and genetics.

In my experience, women who become dissatisfied with their bulky physique after strength training are blaming the muscle instead of their body fat. It is not uncommon for women who are strength training to get a little bulky before they start leaning out. Once they start losing body fat, they become rather infatuated with their sexy new muscles.

If you are facing this issue, I recommend you stay the course. Keep strength training and following a low-GI whole foods diet. Once you get down to a body fat percentage below 25%, then you can start experimenting with lifting weights to achieve physique related goals.

On a personal note, ladies, we tend to have a very narrow definition of what a beautiful, healthy body looks like. Do some soul searching. Are you too hard on yourself? Comparing your body to airbrushed images is an easy trap to fall into.

Newly Diagnosed. How do I get into an exercise routine?

PCOS-and-exercise-your-questions-answered-trainingI’m newly diagnosed with PCOS, and I’m finding it really hard to get into an exercise routine. I’m always feeling too tired and too down to get motivated. I feel like I don’t have the energy, any tips?

It is completely counterintuitive, but your workout is an excellent fatigue fighter. Plus, exercise fights the blues by boosting production of the mood-elevating neurochemicals endorphin and Serotonin.

If you are having trouble jumping into a full-blown exercise program, consider making a micro-commitment. Commit yourself to working out every day for a small period. For most women, 10 minutes is a very manageable starting point. Be absolutely uncompromising about this small commitment. Write an exercise appointment into your day planner or calendar and, no matter how busy or tired you are, work out for the 10 minutes. I wrote an article on three of my favorite ways to get motivated to workout, click here to read it.

What are the best pre and post exercise snacks for those with PCOS?

Eating a well-balanced meal made of unrefined, whole foods before and after your workout will help you recover and feel energized.

My best tip:

Just get moving! Don’t let questions, insecurities, or other roadblocks prevent you from getting more physical activity. I believe that every woman was born to enjoy the power and strength of her body through movement. It is your birthright! You’ve just got to claim it!

Erika is a certified personal trainer, Nutrition Coach, and fitness writer. She holds certifications from the American Council on Exercise (ACE), TRX Suspension Training Systems and Precision Nutrition.

Erika was diagnosed with PCOS in 2005. She believes that lifestyle modifications are the best treatment for PCOS. If you want to learn more about how exercise can alleviate PCOS symptoms, please visit her website at erikavolkfitness.com.

Erika lives with her husband in a small beach town somewhere in Costa Rica. Her hobbies include cooking, hiking, learning Spanish and traveling. At erikavolkfitness.com you’ll find at-home workout plans, healthy cooking tips, and stories about her life in Costa Rica.

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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.

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15 Responses

15 Responses

  1. Hello, I started working out three weeks ago. I’m feeling stronger and can see slight changed in my body. But I’m finding that I feel like I have low blood sugar in the afternoon. I eat one serving of carbs for breakfast with protein and fat, work out about 40 minutes later, then have a smoothie with some protein powder and berries right after, then my next meal is usually salad with chicken and a little sweet potato. But a couple hours later I really feel a drop in my blood sugar. I’ve been trying to limit my carbs to just a small serving before and after my workouts, but do I need a little more carbs in the afternoon to keep stable? I’m trying to wrap my head around this, because before I started working out I was fine with eating very few carbs, mainly from veggies and a little bit of berries or a banana. I was eating pretty much just three meals a day without any issues and now I feel like my body is asking for something different but I don’t even know what I’m supposed to be giving it.

  2. Hi;

    Thank you for the advice. Im from Sweden and here the doctors have no clue whats pcos is about. Its so frustatrating. In 2000 a got a piece of paper from my doctor that said “PCOS”. I asked him “what s this” and he replyed: “Google it”.
    Anyway, I had my son in 2008 with help from IVF, and after that…My pcos is taking over me. Gaining wehigt, hai over my entire body. Depression and anger is a daychallange for me. I quit my job befor summer because of all the stress. But now, when Im home I slovly starting to work out. One day Power walk, then one day rest, then swiming, then rest. I take it step by step and already feeling better. Been doing this for Three weeks now. Also eating a lot healtier. I will take your advise with me in my journey.

    Thank you so much, and hope you could understand my English 🙂

    Love from Sweden

  3. , am 25 yrs weight 84 and height 5.5

    i mised my periods jan 2016 til april and on 13 april i went to dictor gave 6 pils within 10 days my periods came and she sugested few tests , report was both ovary are enlarged in size right ovary measured 4.5*2.3*2.1 (vol 11.6cc) left 5.3*2.1*2.1(vol 12.6cc)both ovary contain multiple(>6) small(<8mm) follicles and echogeneic Strom's suggestive of polycystic ovarian disease changes. what does this exactly mean. am in serious condition . does this cause infertility problem for me.

  4. , i mised my periods jan 2016 til april and on 13 april i went to dictor gave 6 pils within 10 days my periods came and she sugested few tests , report was both ovary are enlarged in size right ovary measured 4.5*2.3*2.1 (vol 11.6cc) left 5.3*2.1*2.1(vol 12.6cc)both ovary contain multiple(>6) small(<8mm) follicles and echogeneic Strom's suggestive of polycystic ovarian disease changes. what does this exactly mean. am in serious condition . does this cause infertility problem for me.

  5. Hi my name is Karen I am almost 20 years old and have pcos. I have had a child. But I put on so much weight after having her and continue to put on weight I stopped eating bad food it’s quiet hard but I try I also excercise for awhile but have no energy to. I tried taking weight loss pills that just made me tired. I don’t know what good foods to pick that wil actually faste alright. Anyone out there that can help me please. So difficult trying to understand pcos.

  6. I have diagnosed pcos 1 yes back…my doctors said you don’t have to cut food or anything in ur diet.. As ur weight is OK…BT I felt DAT I have gained weight mostly on thighs…my doctor could not explain me properly…I have read many articles about pcos…I don’t know what to do…

  7. Great tips! You’ve done a great job about making sure not to enforce a “one routine fits all” plan. I have PCOS and chronic asthma. For me, cardio work outs aren’t really an option. However, I do enjoy Zumba Gold (being a young girls with a bunch of middle to older aged women is actually way more fun!)and dancing games on the Xbox. My doctor has told me that these are great cardio workouts for me that don’t push me into an asthma attack. Just remember health is personal, what might work for one person may not work for you. Get to know your body and what’s right for you!

    1. Brittany-very wise. It so important to recognize that our individual situations might mean that the standard recommendation is not the right choice for us. The important thing is to stay active, positive, and attentive to what our bodies are telling us.

  8. I have PCOS. Since Im a internet freak, i often search a lot about symptoms that i observe or feel in my body. I had a pulmonary embolism in 2009 from birth control pills and was pretty much doomed after that. The gynecologist basically told me that i will be taking a chance by getting pregnant bcz i can easily clot again. I am totally freaked out because i want kids of my own. She did however explain that weight loss would be superior and may help with my infertility.Hoping to conceive some day.

    1. D,

      I am sorry to hear you have had so many health set-backs. In most cases a moderate amount of weight loss will improve a women’s fertility. I would ask your Doc how exercise can help you reach that goal. Because of your complicated medical history you should seek out the advice of a doctor. Make an appointment and bring a list of questions to ask. I use to be shy about asking my Doctor loads of question but that is what they are there for so ask away!

  9. I’ve started exercising, it’s been 2 months now and I can feel the benefits. I use to be so tired as I suffer from anemia but now I think I have more stamina. I do cardiovascular for 30-40 min on the cross trainer and have started strength training and doing standing ab crunches(as I have a bad back) I’ve also changed my eating habit and cut down on carbs, taking B vitamins and chai seeds. I was only daianosed with PCOS about a year ago. Suffered 10 miscarriages and am in pain due to sciatica and osteoarthritis.

    I’ve had enough and I’m taking my own health under control.
    Ladies I urge you to start slow if you haven’t excerise for a long time, such as walking for 15 min then increasing it and make little changed like cutting down sodas and bread. Once it’s out of your system you don’t crave it as much. Little steps soon add up x

    1. Chantana, Congrats on 2 months of working out that a big accomplishment 🙂 And great advice about starting out slow. When we try to change too much too soon we can stress ourselves out both mentally and physically. A healthy lifestyle needs to happen one small step at a time. Keep up the good work!

  10. I have just been told that I have pcos. I have just started an eating program. I know I need to exercise but my biggeat problem is I am SERIOUSLY unfit! What would be the best way to get fitter? Would a walk around the block help until I am fitter to do more? Thank you

    1. Shelly,

      Walking might be a good place for you to start. Especially if you feel intimidated by a formal workout. Try walking at a pace that causes you to breath heavy but you can still talk.Once you are able to sustain a brisk walk for 15 minutes you should be able to do a beginners workout. You might want to check out my Just Start! exercise program for PCOS too- I designed it for beginners. Of course talk to your Doc before you start any exercise program.

      Remember to be patient and kind to yourself- making these changes is not easy and it takes time.

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