Exercise is often praised for its ability to improve heart and brain health. While that's certainly true, exercise can also help balance hormones!
Indeed, exercise triggers the release of 'workout hormones,' increases hormone receptor sites, and helps other hormones remain in check. Follow along to learn how exercise impacts hormone balance!
How Does Exercise Impact Hormones?
As mentioned, exercise impacts hormones in several ways. What's more, different types of exercise affect hormone levels in specific ways. Generally speaking, exercise can influence hormones by:
• Increasing or decreasing production
• Improving hormone receptor sites
• Releasing other chemicals that then affect hormones
Remember that hormones are chemical messengers that help direct biochemical processes to drive metabolism. Hormones play a role in everything from energy production to sleep to mood, immunity, and much more. Every single bodily system is highly affected by hormones.
Furthermore, just about every lifestyle habit influences hormonal balance too. While the focus of this article is on exercise and hormones, diet, sleep, mental and emotional health, environmental toxins and community can positively or negatively impact hormones. Nonetheless, engaging in regular physical activity is a simple, accessible way to promote hormone homeostasis.
This is important because hormone imbalances can wreak havoc on overall health. Different hormone imbalances drive different symptoms, but some universal signs include:
• Low energy/motivation
• Irritability and mood swings
• Depression and anxiety
• Sleep problems
• Jitters or feeling wired
• Fluid retention
• Decreased libido
• Temperature dysregulation
• Bowel irregularity and problems
• Acne and other skin problems
• Missed or irregular menstrual cycles
• Dry, brittle hair, skin, and nails
• Weight gain or loss
• Increased or decreased appetite
• Poor overall wellbeing
Now, learn exactly how specific types of exercise can balance your hormones!
Exercise and Hormones
In general, exercise most affects insulin, cortisol (stress hormone), and reproductive and thyroid hormones. Below goes into greater detail on certain hormones released during exercise based on the type.
Otherwise called aerobic training, cardio exercise requires oxygen and typically raises heart rate consistently for a moderate to long amount of time (15-60+ minutes). Examples include jogging, cycling, swimming, repeated plyometrics, and using a machine at the gym like a rower.
Moderately intense cardio completed for about 15-60 minutes positively affects the stress hormone cortisol by increasing the production of dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that can lower high cortisol levels.
Interestingly, long, frequent bouts of intense cardio negatively influence hormone balance by chronically increasing cortisol levels. Most elite-level athletes have elevated cortisol levels despite looking fit and healthy from the outside.
Chronically high cortisol levels hinder health by reducing immunity, encouraging insulin resistance, and leading to adrenal fatigue. Elevated cortisol can also lead to an imbalance of reproductive hormones down the road.
Thus, it's wise to incorporate some, but not too much, enjoyable cardio throughout the week to keep cortisol in check. Research repeatedly shows that outdoor cardio - like hiking, mountain biking, swimming, and even boot camps held in parks - offers more mood benefits. So, consider taking the cardio outside next time!
Keep in mind that long endurance athletes and aficionados are not doomed to bad health. It just means that these folks may need to engage in extra lifestyle habits (like increasing sleep!) that help manage cortisol and reproductive hormones.
Sometimes called strength training, resistance exercise includes weight lifting and anything else that pushes or pulls against resistance, such as through bands or medicine balls, etc. It generally includes repeated sets and reps completed at a controlled pace.
Resistance exercise is best known for increasing muscle mass. It likely encourages this growth because strength training significantly boosts testosterone and human growth hormone (HGH) levels. It has a larger effect in males, but still a significant one for females too.
Testosterone contributes to blood sugar balance, maintaining muscle mass and therefore metabolism, sex drive, energy levels, mood, and heart health. HGH helps regulate body composition, fluids, muscle and bone growth, energy metabolism, and heart function as well.
It's recommended to include two to three days of strength training for 20-60 minutes per week. However, some athletes have success including up to six sessions of strength training per week. Also invest in a well-programmed exercise routine/plan that correctly incorporates concepts like progressive overload, training cycles, and recovery.
High-intensity interval training involves doing very taxing exercises for short bursts of time followed by periods of complete rest. They can be quite simple or complex in nature. A simple example is doing burpees for 15 seconds followed by 45 seconds of rest for a total of 15 minutes.
Keep in mind that true HIIT sessions are 20 minutes maximum and more appropriate HIIT workouts should fall around the 12-15 minute mark. Workouts that incorporate some cardio and strength that are longer than 20 minutes fall into circuit training. While circuit-style workouts have their benefits, they less directly affect hormone levels. These are fine workouts to maintain general health but are the least physiologically adaptive.
The highly touted benefits of HIIT exercises are only experienced when they are performed correctly. In fact, incorrectly performed HIIT typically causes more harm by significantly increasing the stress hormone cortisol.
However, when completed wisely, HIIT training can drastically improve insulin resistance, help balance high estrogen levels and increase HGH levels.
HIIT increases cellular glucose uptake for many hours after completion, which helps remove glucose from the blood and get it into cells. Over time, this improves insulin sensitivity throughout the entire day.
It also promotes the highest amount of fat loss of any kind of exercise thanks to exercise post oxygen consumption (EPOC). EPOC innately balances estrogen levels, as toxic estrogen is produced by too many fat cells.
HIIT has also been shown to increase HGH, which increases metabolism and promotes muscle growth and recovery.
Finally, although it is often overlooked, gentle movements like walking, yoga, pilates, and daily activities perhaps have the largest impact on hormone health and balance. These lighter kinds of exercise do not overly stress the body, so it reaps the general benefits of exercise without needing to react or compensate in significant ways.
Gentle exercise helps to reduce cortisol and adrenaline, which can increase irritability and anxiety. It may also increase GABA, a neurotransmitter that helps control fear and anxiety and generally promotes calmness. This type of exercise also improves autonomic functions by triggering neurohormonal mechanisms.
Incorporating consistent gentle movement throughout the day is the best way to promote the most effective hormonal balance. Making efforts to walk more, take stretch breaks, chase after kids, and perform chores can make a huge impact on hormonal health in the short and long term.
Recap: How Exercise Balances Hormones
For better or worse, exercise can impact hormone levels and subsequent body processes. Along with other lifestyle factors, the type and intensity of exercise are what dictate the fate of hormones.
In general, maintain a good balance with hormones by balancing a variety of exercises. Improve your balance with both through a sustainable workout plan, which may include forms of cardio, resistance training, and gentle movement.
Basile LM. Exercises to Balance Hormones. EndocrineWeb. Published September 6, 2020. https://www.endocrineweb.com/news/the-best-exercise-for-hormonal-imbalance.
Bennett H. How to Improve Your Hormone Health with Exercise. BALANCE. Published February 9, 2022. https://balance.media/can-rebalance-hormones-exercise/.