PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome) is a condition that comes with many unwanted symptoms:
- absent/irregular periods,
- stubborn weight, especially around the midsection,
- insulin resistance, and more.
You don’t need all these symptoms for PCOS. But if one of those you’re dealing with is weight gain, you’ve probably wondered what diet and exercise routine you should choose. I’ve talked about the ideal diet with PCOS before and you can check out that article if you need to. Today, I wanna talk about exercising for PCOS rather than against it. Yes, you read that right. Often times, our exercise routine works against our bodies. Why? Because most of them are built with men in mind. None of them takes into consideration the hormonal changes a woman goes through each month.
We are taught from an early age to push through while we have our periods, to act like nothing is happening. And don’t get me wrong, I’m all for living your life to the full regardless of the time of the month. But sometimes our bodies need a little more TLC. Cycling your workout has immense benefits for PCOS. But before we talk more about cycle syncing your workout, let’s go back to the start and figure out what the best ways of exercising for PCOS are.
Exercising for PCOS – Cardio vs Strength Training
The biggest question when beginning a new exercise routine – should you do all the cardio or lift weights? Many women with PCOS (but not only) worry that weight training will make them bulky. After all, high testosterone is common with PCOS, so you have bigger chances of growing big muscles like a man, right? Wrong!!!
Benefits of strength training for PCOS
Strength training reduces insulin resistance. Building more muscles allows your cells to be more responsive to insulin.
Also, muscles help reduce belly fat! A study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania found that women who did an hour of strength training twice a week reduced their body fat by 4%!
Another great benefit of lifting weights is that it helps to lower cholesterol. Maybe right now you’re young and don’t have this issue yet. But you should know that women with PCOS are more predisposed to high cholesterol, so fighting it with the right lifestyle right from the start is crucial.
Still scared you’ll look bulky?
Let me tell you something I’ve learned during my years spent in the gym both training and as a personal trainer. To look like a bodybuilder you need a special regime that includes a very, very strict diet, many hours A DAY lifting heavy. It also takes supplementing your diet to eat tons of protein and very little fat and carbs. And all this strict regime should be kept for months, or even years. As you can see, unless you take drastic measures towards becoming a bodybuilder, there’s no chance you’ll end up looking like one.
But…what about cardio?
Cardio exercises aren’t bad. But if you only focus on that you won’t see many results. You might lose some weight in the beginning, especially if you’ve never exercised before. But in the long run, if you only do cardio, you’ll plateau fast. To maximize its benefits you should alternate it with strength training.
Another great way to do cardio, that ensures maximum effects is high-intensity interval training (HIIT). In HIIT you alternate between bouts of intense exercise with bouts of low-intensity work. It keeps your body constantly guessing, maximizing the fat you burn. It might not be suitable for beginners or those with different conditions, so start slow with beginner exercises or talk to a personal trainer before you start HIIT.
Moderate intensity cardio, like walking, dancing, or other aerobic exercises are great in balance with strength training.
Example of a balanced workout routine for a week:
- Monday: strength training for the lower body;
- Tuesday: moderate-intensity cardio (power walking, swimming, dancing, etc);
- Wednesday: strength training for the upper body;
- Thursday: Yoga (or other stretching exercises);
- Friday: HIIT;
- Saturday and Sunday: active rest (this can include going for a walk with friends, or doing some relaxing, restorative yoga – move your body but in a way that doesn’t feel like exercise).
Of course, this is only a sample. It might not work for you, your body or your schedule. Adjust to make it work for you! The key is to not do the same thing to times in a row. As you can see, there are no two identical workouts in the above program. If you need to shorten it, you can take out the yoga day and you’ll be left with 4 days of exercise. We’re all different, so make it work for you.
Don’t forget – exercising for PCOS and for hormonal balance in general means honoring the phases of your cycle. In your follicular and ovulatory phases, you’re more energetic, so you might find yourself naturally attracted to slightly more cardio. During your luteal phase, your energy begins to decrease, but you should still feel strong, thus be more inclined towards strength training. Finally, during your menstrual phase, you might feel tired, so restorative exercises could be the best way to go. I will go into more detail on this in a future post, so subscribe to receive that article in your inbox!
The best exercise routine is the one you can stick to
What about other forms of exercise?
There are many who say exercising for PCOS MUST include weight lifting and cardio, preferably HIIT. While I agree these are great exercises, I don’t agree you can’t manage your PCOS without them. Moving your body is essential, don’t get me wrong! But how you do it can vary greatly. And there are many types of movement: yoga, swimming, playing various sports like tennis, football, basketball, hiking, climbing. The list can probably go on.
So what if you love yoga and don’t want to disrupt your practice? Or what if you love water so much you’re certain you were some type of fish in a previous life? Most people who do one type of workout for a long time, be it yoga, swimming or other sports, will agree on one thing: you need to combine workouts to maximize results. Take football players for instance: they do strength training often.
So I’ll ask you this: have you been doing the sports you like, have you been practicing yoga for a long time, and are at a moment when you’re not seeing any more results? Maybe you’re even gaining weight? Then it’s time to add something else.
I know many yogis who practice 7 days a week, so adding something else might be hard. But even if you only switch one day a week, it will be enough. You won’t lose your flexibility! Take it from someone who loves yoga! The practice is key, but so is switching up exercises and keeping your muscles guessing and learning new moves!
Allow yourself to be a beginner
One thing I’d like to emphasize is the need to allow yourself to be a beginner. PCOS is a hard diagnosis. And if you are already overweight, struggling with insulin resistance and borderline diabetes, you might have encountered a doctor who ordered you to lose weight fast. Unless you are supervised by a doctor, please don’t go into a diet and exercise routine that will melt many pounds a day.
Firstly, it isn’t healthy. Secondly, you’ll gain it back. Your body is used to being at a certain weight. If you shock it by losing weight quickly, it will try to get it all back as soon as it has the chance because it knows that’s its weight. If you want to keep it off easier, you need to lose weight slowly, to give your body time to adjust to the new weight.
For exercise, the risk is slightly different. If you start out with difficult exercises for extended periods of time:
- you’ll hate doing it,
- you’ll be exhausted, taxing your adrenals, and worsening your PCOS,
- you’ll probably give up sooner rather than later.
Exercising for PCOS (rather than against it)
- Start where you are. Even if that means walking at a slow pace on the treadmill for 10 minutes, then doing 5 bodyweight squats and lifting 2-pound weights. In time, you’ll be able to do more and more.
- Do something you love! Maybe you’re a couch potato who doesn’t like any exercise. In this case, experiment until you find something that makes you feel good.
- Aim to feel like you’ve worked, but not exhausted and ready to just crash on the couch for the rest of the day. Ideally, your workout should make you feel slightly energized and happy, like you’ve done something amazing. Because you have!
- Listen to your body. If it’s your menstrual phase and you feel tired or in pain, don’t push it. Do something restorative, gentle. Once you enter your follicular phase, your body will naturally have more energy and you can make up for it then.