People who suffer with hypothyroidism or hashimoto’s disease often report that exercise is difficult due to fatigue or tiredness. Others with hypothyroidism or sub-clinical hypothyroidism(TSH greater than 4.0 with T4 and T3 within the reference range), increase exercise in an attempt to better manage their weight. A common message I hear from patients who are overweight or obese, is that exercising more and eating less is not helping them achieve their desired weight. Understanding the interplay of thyroid hormones, stress hormones, oxidative stress, inflammation and the type of exercise chosen is important. Choosing the right type of exercise, implemented correctly is critical to enjoying the benefits and avoiding making things worse.
Why should I exercise?
Reduce Metabolic Syndrome:
An increasing body of research indicates that people with an underactive thyroid or suboptimal thyroid hormone levels are at an increased risk of developing metabolic syndrome. This is particularly the case when a woman enters menopause. Metabolic syndrome is the term for a cluster of conditions relating to heart disease and diabetes. High blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol levels are the conditions which increase a person’s risk of heart attack or stroke.
It is widely accepted that exercise is beneficial for reducing metabolic syndrome, heart disease and diabetes risk. Additionally studies on women with subclinical hypothyroidism, who participated in exercise training for 6 months showed remarkable improvements in blood vessel function, inflammation, cholesterol and blood fats compared to sedentary women. (1)
If you are female with hypothyroidism or subclinical hypothyroidism and your waist circumference is above 80 cm, it is important to include regular exercise as part of your self-care routine to prevent further health issues down the track.
Improve Thyroid Hormone Production:
What is recently becoming more apparent is that exercise can also influence the thyroid gland’s production of hormones. Even when already treated with thyroid hormone replacement such as thyroxine, exercise is important. Medium intensity exercise for one hour daily for 3 months has the capacity to decrease weight and waist measurements, and improve all thyroid hormone measurements favorably. (3)
Improve Quality of Life:
A randomized trial including women with subclinical hypothyroidism showed significiant improvements in functional capacity, general health, emotional and mental health after 16 weeks of aerobic exercise training. For this study, the women completed 60 minutes of bike riding or treadmill walking three times per week for 16 weeks. (2)
Wipe out brain fog:
Would you like to improve energy levels, brain function and learning ability? These are all symptoms of an underactive thyroid that can be improved by exercise in as little as 4 weeks. A study was done on hypothyroid rats, measured learning ability, lethargy and recovery after exercise. The conclusions of the study were that in four weeks, all types of exercise improved symptoms significantly, and anaerobic exercise in particular was the most valuable. High intensity interval training, weight training, tabata workouts and sprints are all types of anaerobic exercise.
Note: yes, the study was on rats, but correlations with human subjects can be found in similar studies. Also, you don’t have to workout at an elite level to get results. In fact the research shows that slowly building your exercise capacity is important rather than going hard straight up. An experienced personal trainer or exercise physiologist is the best person to help you implement a training program suitable for your needs. Pick someone who can help you grow at an appropriate pace for your current state of health.
What type of exercise is helpful?
Aerobic and Anaerobic exercise is helpful. Most of the research is done using treadmills or exercise bikes in controlled environments for the purposes of accuracy. However it’s important to find the right exercise for you. It needs to be something you will enjoy, so you can make it part of your lifestyle long term. The exercise also needs to be physically manageable. Maybe you don’t want to start running if you have dodgy knees, and don’t cope well with the heat. Swimming could be a better option if you have back issues or joint pain. The key factors are doing enough, consistently, and combining both aerobic and anaerobic activities. In other words include a combination of cardio and weights or resistance training. The cardio training to help improve heart muscle function and stamina and the weight or resistance training to build muscle, strengthen bones and support a healthy metabolism.
The studies show that anything from 60 minutes three times per week to 60 minutes daily can be beneficial. Again, it’s important to find a routine that suits your body, that you can sustain long term and that you will enjoy. From interval training, to yoga, belly dancing or walking – there is something suitable out there for you. The choices are endless. Just pick one and move your body regularly!
Is there a type of exercise I should avoid?
Basically any exercise that you do that causes strong inflammation, distress, or that you don’t enjoy should be swapped for something more appropriate to you. The idea is to push yourself enough to get out and move your body and stimulate gradual improvement in your health and hormones over time. Deciding to start training to run a marathon in 8 weeks time when you have never run before, would be a bad idea. Similarly being sedentary can be just as inflammatory and damaging to your body.
Extreme types of exercise in someone who is not well adapted or trained for it can cause more problems. In a study looking at the effects of oxidative stress – 19 out of 40 patients with subclinical hypothyroidism showed a relationship between high levels of oxidative stress and the progression to hashimoto’s thyroiditis.
Overtraining, or intense and excessive exercise can lead to a raised cortisol levels and increased oxidative stress. This can be counterproductive for weight loss, autoimmune disease and thyroid health. High cortisol levels may encourage fat gain around the middle, sleep disturbances, digestive problems and depression and memory problems. All the things people with thyroid problems are trying to avoid or treat!
These are some signs of overtraining:
- Feeling ill after exercise or catching colds or flus frequently
- Losing muscle mass, or constantly tearing or straining muscles.
- Needing to sleep or feeling constantly exhausted after exercise.
- Gaining fat around the waist.
Instead of trying to fit in 6 or 7 days of high intensity sessions – pace yourself. Intersperse your more intense training sessions with something more restorative like yoga or walking.
If you are motivated to train a bit harder, already compete at an elite level or want to achieve a particular goal that may push your limits, there are foods, nutrients and lifestyle practices that can help reduce the impacts of oxidative stress and inflammation on your body. Having a qualified health practitioner well versed in nutrition, antioxidants, adrenal and thyroid function is recommended.
Take home message:
The right type of exercise will help improve your health.
Appropriate exercise is good for thyroid health, hormone production and immune health. It has the capacity to improve energy, day to day functional capacity, brain fog, memory, concentration and coordination, pain scores, mood, mental health, and weight. Exercise can reduce some of the long term risk of thyroid disease including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, osteoporosis and even some cancers. Don’t be disheartened if your weight on the scales isn’t changing some of the benefits are not easily visible. Exercise is not something to give up on!
Find a balance of both cardio and resistance training.
A mixture of both cardio and strength training is important to get the best overall results for your health. If you haven’t exercised before, or haven’t trained for a while, it’s important to start slow and build up gradually as your fitness improves. Get some help from a qualified and experienced trainer or exercise physiologist to get you started and keep you motivated for the long term. Whatever you choose needs to be effective and sustainable for the long term. Aim for at least 60 minutes three times per week or the equivalent of this as a minimum.
Re-assess regularly and ask for help.
There is no one-size fits all plan for success, however there are a few fundamentals that are key to every person. Eat and live for success. Avoid a diet and lifestyle that puts more stress on your body, get a good 8 hours sleep each night and surround yourself with supportive and positive people. Self-assess and reassess regularly and ask for help.
As someone who has been through Hashimoto’s and out the other side, I have made a few mistakes along the way, and learned many lessons too. If you’d like to know how to avoid the mistakes I made, and enjoy life on your terms again, get in touch for a holistic naturopathic consultation.