We’ve heard over and over again that weight loss is important in managing PCOS and that diet and exercise are more effective than medications in improving your PCOS symptoms. Previously, we’ve focused a lot on the importance of diet and the kind of diet we should all be following.
But, we haven’t really tackled the topic of exercise and just about every day I get emails asking me about what exercise we should be doing and how much. So, I think it’s time to have a closer look at exercise and it’s importance in managing our symptoms.
My own relationship with exercise is a bit hit and miss. Before getting married, I went to the gym about 5 times a week, doing cardio and circuit training. I looked and felt great but my PCOS was undiagnosed and I didn’t have many symptoms. It was also 7 years ago before I settled into married life and had a baby.
Diet and exercise are more effective than medications in improving your PCOS symptoms
Now, I find that time tends to run away with me and I have not managed to get back on track. I did run for about 3 months last summer but became despondent when I saw no improvements in my weight, waist circumference or other symptoms (in fairness I also wasn’t focussed on my diet and didn’t try particularly hard). I know that I’m not the only one like this out there. I’m sure some of you can relate to this (please tell me you can relate!!!)
I have often said that if I understand why I need to do something, I’m far more likely to actually do it. That is why I think we need to have a closer look at the benefits of exercise for women with PCOS. Let’s have a look at what the research says.
Benefits of Exercise for PCOS
One piece of research that I came across gave me some hope in terms of exercise and weight loss. Researchers found that women with PCOS who did 3 hours of aerobic exercise per week for 12 weeks had improved insulin sensitivity, cholesterol and visceral fat (that fat around your belly) even though they did NOT lose any weight. (1) So, even if you are not seeing any improvements on the scale, you are still doing good work to improve your symptoms in the long term by engaging in exercise on a regular basis.
Also, women with PCOS suffer from chronic inflammation (more on this is a future article because I think it’s a big one). But,regular exercise improves inflammation markers (2) which is hugely important because chronic inflammation is linked to insulin resistance. (3) Once again, this shows that exercise improves sensitivity to insulin.
There’s one final thing that I want to mention. A group of researchers looked at a number of studies and literature regarding exercise and PCOS. They considered 8 studies and found that “most consistent improvements included improved ovulation, reduced IR (9–30%) and weight loss (4.5–10%). Improvements were not dependant on the type of exercise, frequency or length of exercise sessions.” (4)
So basically we’re saying that even if you don’t lose weight when exercising, you are still working on improving your:
- insulin sensitivity
- frequency of ovulation
- body composition
You’ll see in all of the research studies we’ve looked at, there is a common thread: insulin resistance. Let’s have a look at why this is key with PCOS.
Insulin and PCOS
Researchers have found that insulin plays a key role in the development of PCOS, even if we are not insulin resistant. You see, insulin acts on our ovaries to stimulate the production of male hormones (testosterone). This happens in all women but our ovaries tend to be oversensitive to insulin, producing too much testosterone.
But wait, there’s more. Insulin also acts to decrease the amount of Sex Hormone Binding Globulin (SHBG). Testosterone should bind to SHBG and not be free floating to cause havoc on our systems. If SHBG is low, there will be more free testosterone in our systems. (5)
And here is the kicker: testosterone causes most of our PCOS symptoms: increased hair growth, male pattern baldness, acne, irregular cycles. So, you can see that it is VITAL that we mange our insulin levels to manage our testosterone. Everything that I have mentioned on this site in terms of diet is aimed at managing insulin and testosterone through diet. Now you have another way of managing it – through exercise.
Summing it up
So, we’ve said that exercise is really beneficial to managing our PCOS as it helps to manage insulin levels which in turn improves our testosterone and SHBG levels. I can already hear the question you’re going to ask next: How much and what kind of exercise should we be doing? That’s too big a topic to tackle in this article so stay tuned for the follow up article on exercise!
I’d love to hear your experiences of managing PCOS with exercise. Also, do you have any tips on how to stay motivated with exercise? I’d love to hear them!