Medically reviewed by Dr. Stacy Hengisman MD and Felice Ramallo MSRD.
Hormonal health refers to how in balance our hormones are, and whether they may be prompting physical and/or emotional symptoms that trouble daily life. For instance, PCOS is a reproductive health condition that is thought to be the result of a hormone imbalance and insulin resistance (which appear to work in conjunction with one another) that trigger signs of androgen excess in the form of excess hair growth, acne, weight gain, and so on. On the other hand, a hormone imbalance is one of those things that can be difficult to navigate: hormones are complex chemical messengers that communicate with each other, as well as different body parts, so trying to bring them back into harmony can feel overwhelming at best, and almost impossible at worst. Fortunately, research appears to indicate that strength training (otherwise known as weight training) and other forms of exercise can be massively beneficial in delivering long term health benefits and a positive impact on our hormones.
What is weight training?
Defining weight training
Weight training, or strength training (also sometimes referred to as “resistance training”) is exercise geared toward improving strength and building muscle. It involves slow and methodical movements, often made more difficult by the use of weights or even your own body mass, in a structured and controlled manner. These exercises are then repeated over the course of several repetitions (often between 7 and 15) and these repetitions make a set. It’s popular to have three sets - though it can be more or less - of a certain exercise, which you carry out with breaks in between.
According to the CDC, Americans should get 2 days of strength training in their routine a week, as well as “150 minutes of moderate physical activity” or “75 minutes of intensity physical activity.” This essentially means that strength training alongside aerobic exercises is optimal when looking to protect your long term health.
Getting the balance right: weight training and aerobic exercise
The following chart, listed by the CDC, is helpful in figuring out what mix of strength training and aerobic exercise may fit in your schedule. If you want to follow the US government’s guide to physical health, then it’s best to find a balance that fits with your lifestyle and preferences. For example, if you love running, then example 2 below could work well for you: running 5 days a week for 15 minutes at high intensity satisfies the “vigorous activity” checkbox, while adding in 2 days of resistance training (either on these days or separate ones) means you check off the “muscle strengthening activities” component as well. On the other hand, if you prefer a brisk walk to a run, example 1 may be more in line with what is realistic for you.
As always, it’s important to create a plan with your doctor before making any drastic changes to your fitness routine, so that you can make sustainable, safe change. From there, you can experiment with trial and error to see what works best for you.
All these exercises in action
Examples of popular strength training exercises include:
- Lifting free weights
- Exercises with the use of resistance bands
- Weighted machines (machines that work with weights or by use of hydraulics to create resistance)
Examples of moderate aerobic exercises include anything that “gets you breaking harder and your heart beating faster”. This could include:
- A brisk walk
- Taking a dance class
- Taking a bike ride
- Pushing a lawnmower (or really any other domestic or physical task that gets you moving and working up a sweat)
Typically as long as: 1) your heart rate is raised, and 2) you’re breaking a sweat while doing physical activity, you’re engaging in moderate aerobic exercise!
Engaging in vigorous aerobic exercises means we take the above examples and go one step further: your heart rate has increased quite a bit, and you’re breathing hard and quickly to the point that it would be difficult to hold a conversation Some examples could include:
- Riding a bike up and down hills, or at an increased speed
- Playing tennis
- Playing basketball
- Playing soccer
By the end of a vigorous aerobic activity, you’re probably going to want to take a shower, because you will have broken quite the sweat!
Note here: the CDC points out if you have a history of chronic disease or ill health, work with your doctor to increase your physical activity in a safe way. This means building up to more vigorous exercise, and finding a routine that is right for you with the help of your family practitioner.
Why is exercise important for hormonal health?
Okay, so we’ve established that both the CDC and the US government highly recommend exercise and encourage it as part of a healthy lifestyle. But how does it play into your hormonal health? Well, let’s take a look at what the research says.
Physical activity influences hormonal health
According to Healthline, “physical activity strongly influences hormonal health.”
This is because it improves the uptake of blood glucose from the bloodstream and into the cells without the use of insulin, promoting insulin sensitivity; and it increases blood flow to your muscles and increases hormone receptor sensitivity, which in turn means the improved delivery of nutrients and hormone signals! Now we may think of estrogen and testosterone when we’re talking about hormones, but did you know that insulin is also a hormone? That’s right. For instance, a study conducted in mice found that exercise “significantly improved HFD-induced glucose intolerance and insulin resistance,” and while authors debate as to whether improvements arise from exercise in and of itself, or from the consequence of losing weight thanks to increased exercise, “evidence shows that regular exercise may improve insulin resistance independently of body weight or fat mass reduction.”
Even more good news? Research indicates that high intensity interval training (HIIT), strength training, and cardio are all beneficial to helping prevent insulin resistance. In other words? Whether you prefer running or lifting weights, benefits can be found in both camps.
Beyond insulin, there is also reason to believe being physically active may “help boost levels of muscle-maintaining hormones that decline with age, such as testosterone, IGF-1, DHEA, and human growth hormone (HGH).” Specifically in this study published in 2014, researchers found that in both animal and human studies, “the sex steroidogenesis enzymes and sex steroid hormone levels in skeletal muscle are upregulated by acute and chronic exercise stimulation.” Another study focused on 200+ older Japanese adults in community-dwellings found that, compared to the control group (who saw no intervention), the walking group and the walking and nutrition group saw greater improvements in skeletal muscle mass index (SMI) and IGF-1.
So if you have a condition like PCOS, endometriosis, or a thyroid problem, does this mean exercise will mitigate all your symptoms? Unfortunately, the answer is no. However, according to research, exercise is correlated with some benefits to your hormonal health, and it is certainly associated with other huge pluses, such as better sleep, reduced anxiety, reduced risk of disease, strengthened bones and muscles, and much more, including lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol levels. Interested in learning more about the benefits of exercise? Check out our article on why exercise is important - some of the answers may surprise you!
Allara Health provides personalized treatment for hormonal, metabolic & gynecological conditions that utilizes a holistic plan that merges nutrition, lifestyle, medication and supplementation, and ongoing, expert support to heal your body.