Health / Expert Advice

PCOS and Exercise: What You Need to Know

Find out what PCOS is and how exercise can help you feel better.

Polycystic ovary syndrome is a hormonal disorder that affects up to 26 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 44. It often leads to a variety of troubling symptoms. Figuring out the best combination of diet and fitness to treat PCOS can be confusing. We asked a few experts to explain what you need to know about PCOS and exercise.

What is PCOS?

According to Dr. Sherry Ross, an OB-GYN and women’s health expert at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, polycystic ovary syndrome occurs when your hormones are lopsided. She says that this is caused by the growth of small cysts on your ovaries. “The long list of symptoms associated with PCOS include irregular periods, excessive hair growth, male-pattern baldness or thinning hair, weight gain, obesity, oily skin, acne, and infertility,” she says. “Depression and anxiety are physically and emotionally disruptive [symptoms, too].”

There is no cure for PCOS, but knowing you have the condition is critical. You can learn how to best minimize the side effects. Ross notes that birth control pills or long-acting contraceptives are frequently used as treatment options for troublesome periods. For severe acne, she recommends contacting a skin doctor or dermatologist. They can suggest anti-androgen drugs that block the production of testosterone.

Aaptiv trainer Kelly Chase works with clients who have been formally diagnosed with PCOS. She deals with a combination of certain symptoms herself. She technically still gets regular periods. However, she experiences high levels of hormones such as cortisol and testosterone, weight gain, facial acne, hirsutism (coarse facial hair), and tiny cysts on her ovaries. For her, lifestyle adjustments such as eating right and moving her body are key. They help her manage markers to avoid full-blown PCOS.

How does PCOS impact weight loss?

With PCOS comes insulin resistance, a condition where the body cannot respond properly to insulin. An increased amount of glucose in the blood causes an increase in the amount of insulin produced. The insulin then moves excess sugar to cells, which is then eventually converted to fat. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists suggests weight management as a way to improve cholesterol and insulin levels. Some research backs the fact that losing as little as 5 percent of body weight can reduce PCOS symptoms overall.

“Many women with PCOS have a challenging time losing weight and tend to be overweight or obese,” Ross says. “Seeing a nutritionist is often the best approach to making successful food choices, achieving weight loss, [and] committing to an exercise routine. Eating foods that are plant-based, nutrient-rich, fresh, and unprocessed, along with healthy fats, is ideal, focusing on a lifelong diet strategy. Controlling your weight helps control irregular periods, excess hair growth, and acne.”

Chase also supports eating a diet rich in whole foods to help manage PCOS symptoms, based on her personal experience. “It’s best to eat more of a plant-based diet with low-glycemic carbohydrates,” she says. “Reducing any inflammatory foods, such as sugar and gluten, is a great way to reduce high insulin levels and create a healthier gut flora. Everything begins with our food, so make sure you’re eating a well-balanced diet.”

Can exercise help treat PCOS symptoms?

Exercise alone won’t “fix” PCOS. However, working out can serve as a tool to help you manage it. Moderate-intensity workouts (at least 30 minutes, three days a week) have shown to reduce insulin resistance and improve weight loss. A study of individuals with PCOS saw a slight dip in weight due to exercise, though results depended heavily on both diet and frequency of activity. Experts point to exercise as most beneficial when combined with a healthy diet because it also lowers your risk for heart disease and diabetes.

“Unfortunately, women with PCOS are more prone to serious medical conditions,” Ross adds. “The list is long and includes diabetes, heart attacks, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, depression, anxiety, endometrial cancer, and sleep apnea. The good news is there are great treatments to control the symptoms caused by PCOS. You can adapt certain lifestyle behaviors to help avoid some of the long-term medical diseases. For those women suffering with PCOS, it is best to include a knowledgeable team of experts with a gynecologist and nutritionist.”

To Chase, exercise functions as essential management of PCOS. She relies on a combination of cardio and strength training for at least 30 minutes, five times per week, to improve sensitivity to insulin and thus manage hormones. Chase also advocates for regular exercise, such as yoga and meditation, as a way to support a stress-free or low-stress lifestyle.

“Women with PCOS: do not give up hope,” Chase says. “You can manage symptoms. You can feel better about your body image by introducing the three components above: nutrient-dense foods, regular exercise, and low-stress activities. Find a type of physical activity that you enjoy doing. This also will prevent you from stressing about ‘having to work out.’ The less stress you have, the better you’ll feel inside and out.”

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