PCOS Workouts: Why Low-Impact Exercise is So Good for Your Hormones

We all know that moving our bodies is so important for our health. While social media and the buzzing fitness industry have made intense exercise that leaves you huffing and puffing in a sweat-drenched ball seem like the best way to move, that’s not true for everyone.

In fact, for people with PCOS who need to think even harder about their hormones and energy levels before embarking on a workout plan, high-intensity training isn’t always the solution. Instead, you might benefit from low-impact workouts.

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What is low-impact exercise?

When it comes to exercise, low impact means avoiding pressure on the joints. That means no jumping or harsh landing, but instead doing fluid movements that are gentler on the body.

Typically, this type of exercise might also be lower intensity as you won’t be jumping, running or springing around. But it doesn’t have to mean that your heart rate doesn’t rise – in fact, some of the best forms of low-impact exercise are cycling and swimming.

Is low-impact less effective?

If you’re used to squat-jumping until your heart rate reaches 200bpm, you might think that low-impact exercise sounds pointless. That’s not true – there are lots of benefits to the training style. 

Low impact activity has been shown to reduce blood sugar levels, particularly when done after eating^1 as well as reduce cortisol levels^2.

While we often think of banging a boxing bag as a good way to beat stress and improve metabolism, too much high-intensity activity is actually shown to do the opposite: a small study from Cell Metabolism found that doing more than 90 minutes of HIIT training a week had negative effects on metabolic health and glucose control^3.

While vigorous activity has been shown to be useful for people with PCOS^4, it’s worth keeping in mind that too much high-impact exercise isn’t the best way to support your health – particularly for those who have PCOS which already impacts metabolism and insulin levels.

Another small study found that low impact steady state (LISS) exercise leads to significant improvements in cardiovascular fitness and muscular power^5. LISS was even shown to have just as many health benefits as HIIT, but participants found LISS workouts more enjoyable – an underrated but important factor to consider when planning your workout routine.

In people with PCOS, lifestyle interventions including changes to exercise and diet are recommended as the best way to manage symptoms. Introducing any form of movement will be useful for those who currently don’t exercise, and a long, brisk walk can feel much more manageable than a 5k run.

Best low-impact exercises for people with PCOS

Walking is probably the easiest way to increase your low-impact activity. Packed with benefits and accessible to everyone, a good place to start would be aiming for 7k steps a day (the 10k target is a marketing tool, and research shows that benefits plateau after around 7,500 steps a day^6). 

If you still want to get your heart pumping and muscles aching without the impact, try swimming.

Alternatively, keep it light and gentle with yoga (some types of yoga won’t be appropriate if you are avoiding impact due to an injury, so make sure you check with a trainer before jumping into a class).

 

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References:

^1. Chastin, S.F.M., Egerton, T., Leask, C. and Stamatakis, E. (2015), Meta-analysis of the relationship between breaks in sedentary behavior and cardiometabolic health. Obesity, 23: 1800-1810. https://doi.org/10.1002/oby.21180

^2. Tolahunase M, Sagar R, Dada R. Impact of Yoga and Meditation on Cellular Aging in Apparently Healthy Individuals: A Prospective, Open-Label Single-Arm Exploratory Study. Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2017;2017:7928981. doi: 10.1155/2017/7928981. Epub 2017 Jan 16. Erratum in: Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2017;2017:2784153. PMID: 28191278; PMCID: PMC5278216.

^3. Mikael Flockhart, Lina C. Nilsson, Senna Tais, Björn Ekblom, William Apró, Filip J. Larsen, Excessive exercise training causes mitochondrial functional impairment and decreases glucose tolerance in healthy volunteers, Cell Metabolism,Volume 33, Issue 5, 2021, Pages 957-970.e6, ISSN 1550-4131,
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cmet.2021.02.017.
(https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1550413121001029)

^4. Eleni A. Greenwood, Martha W. Noel, Chia-Ning Kao, Kanade Shinkai, Lauri A. Pasch, Marcelle I. Cedars, Heather G. Huddleston, Vigorous exercise is associated with superior metabolic profiles in polycystic ovary syndrome independent of total exercise expenditure, Fertility and Sterility, Volume 105, Issue 2, 2016, Pages 486-493, ISSN 0015-0282, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fertnstert.2015.10.020.
(https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0015028215020312)

^5. Foster C, Farland CV, Guidotti F, Harbin M, Roberts B, Schuette J, Tuuri A, Doberstein ST, Porcari JP. The Effects of High Intensity Interval Training vs Steady State Training on Aerobic and Anaerobic Capacity. J Sports Sci Med. 2015 Nov 24;14(4):747-55. PMID: 26664271; PMCID: PMC4657417.

^6. Lee IShiroma EJKamada MBassett DRMatthews CEBuring JE. Association of Step Volume and Intensity With All-Cause Mortality in Older Women. JAMA Intern Med. 2019;179(8):1105–1112. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2019.0899