We all know how important exercise is for good health in general but you may not realise how it can affect your hormone balance. Exercise is a great leveler as it can reduce excess hormones and bring hormones back into balance. Some of the hormones that can be affected by exercise include oestrogen, testosterone, cortisol and human growth hormone. Here’s a look at how exercise can affect levels of key hormones and the best types of workouts to get the benefits.
Exercise and Oestrogen
This is one hormone that women are sure to have some familiarity with given that it’s a major female sex hormone. Oestrogen is also produced in men through an enzyme that turns testosterone into estradiol. Men need some oestrogen for a healthy sex drive but it needs to be kept in balance as high oestrogen can go hand in hand with low testosterone.
For women, oestrogen is important for healthy bones and cholesterol in particular. It’s important to maintain a healthy level as excess oestrogen has been shown to raise the risk of breast cancer. Experts estimate that by the age of 35, a lot of women are in “oestrogen dominance” due to the amount of oestrogen they have. This is a huge topic to discuss and needs a post all on its own, but quite often the issue is not "too much" oestrogen, but not enough progesterone to keep the ratio of both hormones in balance.
There is some good news though: exercise can make oestrogen levels more stable and balance out the effects of excess oestrogen. This may decrease the risk of breast cancer and give you great peace of mind for the future.
Does it matter what type of exercise you do? According to studies, high intensity exercise showed more potential for balancing out oestrogen levels but physical activity in general has been shown to have positive effects. This study mentioned High Intensity Exercise showed most benefit in non-obese women. In my own experience and with my patients, I have seen more progress and benefits when peri-menopausal women engage in cortisol reducing exercise such as walking, swimming, yoga, pilates. HIIT can be helpful for some women, but it is recommended to listen to your body, note any symptoms that occur such as fatigue, difficulty losing weigh (if overweight), etc. These may be signs that you are overdoing it.
Exercise and Testosterone
Testosterone is both a male and female sex hormone even through we tend to think of males first. It’s important for lean muscle mass and helping muscles to recover quicker after exercise. Low testosterone in women can have similar effects to low testosterone in men, although what’s classed as “low” obviously differs!
Exercise can boost testosterone levels, which can play a role in everything from libido to having more muscle mass and less belly fat. Experts suggest that it only takes around 20 minutes of physical activity to increase testosterone levels for women.
Exercise and Human Growth Hormone
If you’re not familiar with Human Growth Hormone (HGH), it has a big role to play in the turnover of collagen, muscle and bone, and it’s also involved in healthy metabolism.
Your body produces some Human Growth Hormone while you sleep but exercise is also well known to boost levels. Not all exercise is equal though and only certain types have been shown to affect levels of Human Growth Hormone. Your best bets? According to studies, high intensity exercise and resistance training can build on this. High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) may also be a good choice given the intensity of the average interval but you’re best to combine it with strength training if you’re serious about boosting HGH. Again, listen to your body and consider if you have hormonal issues such as heavy bleeding, erratic periods, peri-menopausal.
Exercise and Cortisol
Cortisol is a stress hormone and dictates how our bodies respond to stress. We need cortisol to help to repair exercise related muscle damage and encourage your muscles to bounce more quickly after working out.
It’s not all good news though. Having high cortisol levels most of the time makes you more likely to store fat, especially belly fat.
When you work out, your body’s cortisol levels rise. This is a given and there’s not much you can do about it. That said, some types of exercise are more likely to raise cortisol levels than others.
Low intensity exercise can reduce cortisol levels and keep them at stable levels whereas reasonably high intensity exercise has been shown to increase them. Endurance training is one of the types of exercise that can significantly raise cortisol levels, especially when it’s intense.
Peri-menopause is a time when cortisol levels can remain high as oestrogen levels drop. A change in how you work out during this phase of your life can be the difference between a relatively stress free perimenopausal time. LISS and yoga are my favourite forms of exercise to help restore balance to my hormones.
Exercise and Insulin
Regular exercise can help to improve insulin resistance. High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is a good choice for this, according to studies, but it’s not quite as straightforward as this given that HIIT also increases cortisol levels too. How much it raises cortisol levels can depend on factors such as how long you rest in between intervals and whether you recover well between HIIT sessions.
Don’t be tempted to overdo it. One word of caution when it comes to all of these hormones: over exercising can throw everything out of whack - especially if you do it more often than not. Brittle bones and fertility issues are just a couple of the things that can start to develop as a result of this.
The most important thing is to do something you enjoy. Get together with some friends and instead of a coffee date, go for a walk along the beach, hike in the forests or swim in the ocean. Moderate exercise can be a great way to keep your hormone levels healthy, especially when it’s combined with a good diet, plenty of sleep and a healthy lifestyle in general.