Health / Expert Advice

Here’s How Hypothyroidism Affects Exercise—and How to Combat It

First step, identify what it is.

More than 20 million Americans struggle with thyroid disorders—and I just so happen to be one of them.

I have an autoimmune disease called Hashimoto’s, which causes my body to attack my thyroid gland. As a result, I also have hypothyroidism (doc talk for an under-active thyroid).

Before I was diagnosed a few years ago, being active was a given. I ran almost every day, hit the gym a few times a week, and went hiking every weekend.

But since my thyroid went wonky, staying active has become much more of an uphill battle. The symptoms that come standard with a hypothyroidism diagnosis—such as brain fog, weakness, muscle pain, and extreme fatigue—aren’t exactly a recipe for an active lifestyle.

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I’m going to be honest. There are days when my hypothyroidism definitely makes staying active a challenge.

But it certainly doesn’t make it impossible! There are ways to maintain an active lifestyle even when your thyroid symptoms leave you feeling totally exhausted and depleted.

Here’s what I’ve learned and what experts have to say about working out with hypothyroidism.

Understanding the Thyroid

Before we dive into how to stay active when your thyroid doesn’t want to cooperate, let’s quickly touch base on how the thyroid works.

“The thyroid is a gland that…[produces] two main hormones, triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4)…which regulate your body’s energy use, along with many other important functions such as breathing, heart rate, central and peripheral nervous systems, body weight, muscle strength, menstrual cycles, body temperature, and cholesterol levels,” says Carolyn Dean, M.D., N.D., medical advisory board member, Nutritional Magnesium Organization.

When your thyroid doesn’t produce enough of those hormones, all those systems in your body can’t function properly.

You can end up feeling totally exhausted as a result. “The reason patients struggle with feeling tired and fatigued when dealing with thyroid disorders is that the thyroid plays a major role in metabolism, heart rate, and body temperature,” says Alissia Zenhausern, N.M.D., of NMD Wellness of Scottsdale.

“When your thyroid is under-active, it slows down your metabolism, heart rate, and ability to regulate your body temperature, which means your body must find other ways to self-regulate these pathways—making your body work harder and leading to you feeling more fatigued and tired.”

How to Stay Active in Spite of Your Hypothyroid Symptoms

Now we know how the thyroid works and why an underactive thyroid can make it harder to stay active. But enough about the problem!

Let’s talk about the solution and how to stay active in spite of those pesky hypothyroid symptoms.

Catch plenty of zzz’s.

Getting enough sleep is important for everyone—but especially for those with thyroid disorders. “[Getting at least eight hours of] sleep is important to allow the adrenals to rest and recover. This is vital for the thyroid-adrenal conversation,” says Heidi Iratcabal, N.D., D.P.T., C.G.P., I.F.M.C.P., founding partner of Carpathia Collaborative.

“If the body is stressed [from lack of sleep] and adrenals are pumping out cortisol, this will put more pressure on the thyroid.”

Too little sleep can also increase inflammation. This, if your hypothyroid comes courtesy of Hashimoto’s, will definitely make your symptoms worse.

“Research has shown that people who get about six or fewer hours of sleep a night have higher blood levels of inflammatory proteins than those who get more. So lack of sleep increases chronic inflammation and reduces overall health,” Dr. Dean says.

Cut back on the caffeine.

When you’re struggling with thyroid-related low energy, you may be tempted to down a Red Bull or a few cups of coffee to get yourself going (I know I’ve been there!). But caffeine can mess with the way your body absorbs thyroid medication and make your symptoms, including fatigue, worse.

“Caffeine has been shown to block the absorption of thyroid hormone replacement medications,” Dr. Zenhausern says. “If you inhibit absorption, the medication is not able to function properly, which will prevent you from improving your thyroid function.”

A little caffeine is OK, but if you want to have the energy to stay active, don’t go crazy. Stick to one cup of coffee a day.

Give your thyroid what it needs to function through diet…

You can’t cure your thyroid through diet, but you can definitely make some major improvements. By giving your body the foods it needs to support proper thyroid function, you can keep your symptoms in check and have more energy to stay active as a result.

“Diet has a huge impact on thyroid function and hormone production,” Dr. Iratcabal says. “The foods that provide the greatest amount of energy are healthy fats and proteins, such as olive oil, avocados and avocado oil, fatty fish, nuts, seeds, and pasture-raised animals.”

If you have Hashimoto’s, stay away from gluten. “Gluten can cause unnecessary inflammation and can worsen the symptoms of [hypothyroidism from] Hashimoto’s disease,” Dr. Zenhausern notes.

…and the right supplements.

“In my experience, most low thyroid conditions are caused by mineral deficiency,” Dr. Dean says.

“There are nine minerals necessary for the creation, conversion, activation, and transport of thyroid hormones: iodine, selenium, zinc, molybdenum, boron, copper, chromium, manganese, and magnesium.”

It’s possible to get some of these must-have minerals through your diet. “Brazil nuts, sardines, and salmon are rich sources of selenium, while sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, and lentils are rich in zinc,” Dr. Iratcabal says.

However, the best way to get all the minerals you need to support your thyroid (and in the proper doses) is through supplements.

Incorporating the right supplements into your routine can help manage your hypothyroid symptoms. As a result, it’ll be easier to maintain an active lifestyle.

Keep your workouts short and sweet.

When I’m feeling super exhausted (thanks, lazy thyroid!), the thought of a long, strenuous workout could not be any less appealing.

Luckily, you don’t have to subject yourself to long, strenuous workouts in order to stay active. Keeping your workouts short and sweet can help you find the motivation to get up and go, even when you’re feeling depleted. Plus, exercise could be just what you need to boost your energy.

Try Aaptiv’s quick HIIT workouts (or other classes) to keep your workouts short, but impactful.

If you’re struggling to find the energy to work out, commit to five minutes. Chances are, once you’ve started, you’ll find the energy for a longer workout. But, if not, five minutes is better than zero minutes.

Dr. Iratcabal recommends high-intensity interval training to get the most bang for your buck. “[Five minutes of HIIT] will activate the adrenals and the hippocampus to produce more acetylcholine (the ‘focus’ neurotransmitter) and dopamine (the ‘get-up-and-go’ neurotransmitter),” she says.

You can stay active.

I’ll be honest. Dealing with an underactive thyroid can be a drag, and I’ve had to make more of an effort to stay active since I was diagnosed with a thyroid disorder. But while dealing with an underactive thyroid can be a drag, it doesn’t have to keep you from living an active lifestyle!

(Side note: If you’re struggling with an underactive thyroid, it’s important to talk to a medical professional. Without the right treatment and medication, your hypothyroidism symptoms are pretty much guaranteed to get worse—so do yourself a favor and get to the doctor, stat.)

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