How To Balance Your Hormones With Exercise
How To Balance Your Hormones With Exercise

How To Balance Your Hormones With Exercise

Done right, exercise can boost your feel-good hormones and improve sleep and digestion. But do the wrong amount of exercise – or the wrong type at the wrong time – and you could send your hormones into a tailspin that results in low mood, weight gain, insomnia and anxiety. Here, we asked the experts how to strike the right balance…
By Tor West

How exactly can exercise support our hormones?

“Regular exercise is so beneficial for our hormones. For starters, exercise can modulate your stress response and reduce levels of cortisol, your main stress hormone. As exercise pulls glucose from the bloodstream, it can also help manage blood sugar levels and lower your risk of insulin resistance, which can lead to type 2 diabetes. Exercise can also reduce inflammation and improve circulation, and studies carried out on sedentary people show weight training can reset your HPA axis – your brain’s stress control centre – so it becomes more responsive. But more is not always better – three to four workouts a week is a good place to start for more balanced hormones.” – Christopher Barker, head of nutrition at The Female Curve

Do certain types of exercise affect different hormones?

“Yes – hatha yoga, which places particular emphasis on controlled breathing and posture, is an effective way to reduce stress. One study found practising hatha yoga three times a week for four weeks resulted in significant reductions in stress, depression and anxiety. Yoga is also a fantastic way to trigger the release of endorphins, your feel-good hormones. On the flip side, high-intensity exercise like running and HIIT can support cardio levels and muscle and bone health, but for most women it’s a case of less is more. When women go overboard with high-intensity exercise, which is itself a stressor – especially as part of a busy week – they run the risk of keeping their cortisol levels elevated for too long. This can put your body into a chronic state of stress, which can lead to metabolic problems, menstrual dysfunction, heart disease and diabetes.” – Christopher

What are the signs your workout regime isn’t working for you?

“Over-exercising a body that is already stressed is the quickest way to cause hormonal dysregulation. When your cortisol levels remain high, the stress hormone steals protein from your muscles, reduces your sensitivity to insulin, weakens your immune system and impedes ovulation, which can lead to blood sugar problems, an increase in abdominal fat, brain fog and fatigue (especially in the morning and mid-afternoon), an inability to handle stress, lowered immunity, slow wound healing, cravings for salty foods, dizziness, dry skin, low sex drive, poor muscle tone and sleep problems, including difficulty getting up in the morning. If you recognise a couple of these symptoms, it could be that you are too stressed and doing too much exercise.” – Christopher

When cortisol levels remain high, the STRESS HORMONE STEALS PROTEIN FROM YOUR MUSCLES and affects immunity.

How can you make cardio work for you?

“The most important thing is to never do cardio on an empty stomach. If the brain detects a lack of nutrition, especially carbohydrates, this will ultimately reduce our sensitivity to insulin and increase appetite. When you exercise fasted, your cortisol levels will get increasingly higher and thyroid function will be depressed, which can affect your menstrual cycle. There is a place for cardio and intense exercise, it just needs to be done properly, and ideally no more than three or four times per week, alongside well thought-out nutrition.” – Christopher

What should you eat after an intense workout?

“It’s vital to refuel your body with the right nutrients to aid in muscle recovery and balance cortisol levels. Aim for a ratio of 3:1 carbohydrates to protein – think oats with protein powder, eggs on a couple of pieces of toast or a protein shake with oats, banana and honey. There is evidence to suggest consuming omega-3 fatty acids after exercise can also help lower cortisol – think fatty fish like salmon and flaxseed. Taking a magnesium supplement immediately after an intense workout can further keep cortisol in check.” – Luis Ribeiro, clinical director & founder of Club Health

Does timing matter?

“Yes – you should aim to eat within 30-45 minutes of finishing a cardio or high-intensity session to keep your hormones on track. During this ‘golden window’, your body is not only primed to transport the carbs you eat straight into your muscle stores, but also to shuttle amino acids into your muscles, where they can repair the damage and build you back stronger. After 45 minutes, your insulin sensitivity declines, meaning it takes your muscles longer to absorb the glucose from your bloodstream, and as a result your body struggles to replenish its glycogen stores. Protein is also vital in this window, especially if you are in the luteal phase of your cycle. At this point, progesterone levels are high, which can exacerbate muscle breakdown, emphasising the need for more protein so you can protect your muscles and come back stronger.” – Christopher

AVOID ANYTHING TOO INTENSE IN THE WEEK BEFORE YOUR PERIOD when PMS can reduce energy levels and hinder recovery.

If you’ve had a stressful day, what is the best way to exercise?

“Avoid anything high intensity and instead book a slow-flow yoga class or go for a walk – it’s all about gentle movement. If you are constantly stressed and burn the candle at both ends, focus on resistance training in the long-term. A well-structured programme will give the body just the right amount of stimulus to see improvement without pushing stress levels higher. Whichever workout you choose, always remember to refuel within 30 minutes, particularly when stressed.” – Christopher

If you need an energy boost, how should you work out?

“Listen to your body. If you’re tired and feeling lacklustre, it could be that focusing on sleep and nutrition for a few days is what your body needs. If you want to incorporate movement, try an energising yoga flow to increase blood flow and alleviate stress. If you’re tracking your cycle, avoid anything too intense in the week before your period when PMS can increase inflammation, reduce energy levels and hinder recovery.” – Christopher

The bottom line?

“It’s all about striking a balance. Stick to 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week, such as brisk walking or cycling, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise, such as running or HIIT. If you suspect your hormones are out of balance, consider swapping a couple of cardio sessions with resistance training and build restorative exercise – like stretching and gentle yoga – into your week, which can regulate levels of oestrogen and progesterone. To keep the body happy, exercise in a healthy and balanced way, always refuel properly and take plenty of time for rest and recovery.” – Luis

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