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We’ve all heard about the health benefits of exercise. Exercise helps with weight loss, supports cognitive and heart health, reduces the symptoms of anxiety and depression, and lowers the risk of certain cancers. But, when you’re hypothyroid, exercise can leave you feeling exhausted and ready to climb back into bed.
Why does this happen? Ahead, a look at the effects of exercise on your thyroid.
Exercise is defined as “a form of physical activity that is planned, structured, repetitive, and performed to improve health or fitness.” To achieve your fitness or health goals, one can participate in different types of workouts, classified as
- Low or light-intensity
- Moderate intensity
- Vigorous or high-intensity
These exercise classifications are based on the effort expended in the activity. For instance, running, a high-intensity activity, requires more effort than walking, a moderate-intensity activity. You can also think of it this way. While participating in moderate-intensity exercise, you should be able to hold a conversation with someone. This is compared to vigorous exercises, where conversation becomes difficult, if not impossible.
What type of workout you do is entirely up to you. Low or moderate-intensity activities are suitable starting points for those just beginning. High-intensity workouts require a certain fitness level before starting and, if not done correctly, increase the risk of injury.
High-intensity training (HIT) or high-intensity interval training (HIIT) has gained popularity over the years. HIT workouts are great for those who are short on time but still want to get the benefits of exercise. These types of exercise involve short bursts of high-intensity intervals followed by short rest periods. HIT workouts aren’t for everyone.
Other examples of high-intensity exercises one can participate in include
- Singles tennis
- Hiking uphill
- Heavy yard work that increases the heart rate
- Swimming laps
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adults should aim for at least
- 150 to 300 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise or
- 75 to 150 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity exercise.
Of course, you can do a combination of moderate and vigorous physical activity and go beyond 5 hours a week. It would be optimal to try participating in muscle-strengthening activities at least twice weekly.
There are separate guidelines for children, older adults, pregnant or postpartum people, and individuals living with chronic health conditions. You can check them out here. Before starting any exercise program, always check with your healthcare provider to ensure it’s safe.
Hypothyroidism is when your thyroid doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormone. And since thyroid hormones regulate your metabolism -- how your body uses energy -- a lack of thyroid hormone slows your bodily processes. An underactive thyroid can leave you feeling tired with achy muscles and joints without even exercising.
Low thyroid hormone levels can also affect how fast your heart beats. A slower heartbeat means less oxygen is getting to your muscles. And less oxygen to the muscles makes it harder for them to contract during exercise, especially high-intensity exercise. In turn, you may struggle to complete the activity or stop short of your goal duration.
During exercise, you are stressing your body, which is good because it creates changes from the inside out. The amount of stress depends on the type of workout. So, a low-intensity workout causes less stress than a high-intensity one.
For people with hypothyroidism, the added stress of a high-intensity workout may be too much for the body. There are three reasons:
Overdoing it in the gym can cause your adrenal glands to produce a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is what helps our bodies deal with all types of stress. Many people with a thyroid condition have over-stressed adrenal glands, meaning they regularly have high cortisol levels, even without high-intensity workouts.
High cortisol levels can cause muscle weakness and fatigue. Furthermore, studies show high cortisol levels are associated with elevated thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). And high TSH levels correlate to a lack of thyroid hormones. Instead of feeling refreshed or energized after exercise, you may feel exhausted or depleted. In general, any physical, emotional, or mental stress can adversely affect your thyroid function.
Finally, exercise may initially cause an increase in inflammation. This isn’t necessarily bad, as acute inflammation helps with muscle building. Regular high-intensity exercise can, over time, reduce baseline inflammation levels. And for those that have a thyroid autoimmune disorder like Hashimoto’s, this is positive. Lowering inflammation helps combat fatigue, persistent aches and pains, brain fog, and digestive issues. But, too much high-intensity exercise can cause immune suppression, which isn’t good. So, like most things in life, it is all about balancing the immune-boosting benefits of intense exercise while avoiding harmful effects.
Possibly. Thyroid medications help raise your thyroid levels to within the normal range. As a result, your bodily processes start to normalize. For instance, your heart can more efficiently deliver oxygen to your muscles. You may even feel less tired and more motivated to exercise.
Keep in mind that if you live with other chronic medical conditions, they may influence your ability to exercise. Taking a thyroid medication may not improve your exercise tolerance in these cases.
Exercise is so vital to our health, but at the same time, you don’t want to overdo it. You may want to consider working with a certified personal trainer. They can recommend an appropriate exercise routine or help you adjust your exercise plan to avoid exhaustion and a “crash” after a workout.
High-intensity exercise may not be the best option for those with hypothyroidism. Here are five workouts of lesser intensity that get your body moving and can leave you feeling great afterward.
Yoga is a fantastic choice for people with hypothyroidism or Hashimoto’s disease. It helps improve your overall well-being by reducing stress and improving mental health and sleep. In addition, yoga also builds muscle strength, enhances flexibility, and boosts immunity. Yoga is also great for the joints and helps those that suffer from inflammation.
Walking protects your heart from disease, strengthens your muscles, and increases metabolism, essential for those with hypothyroidism.
While walking may seem like the least exciting option, there are so many benefits to taking a stroll around your neighborhood. It can help with depression, and if done during the day, you can also get a healthy dose of natural vitamin D from sunlight. (Many hypothyroidism patients suffer from vitamin deficiencies, especially vitamin D -- the “sunshine vitamin.”) So, turn on some tunes or your favorite podcast and get walking!
Elliptical machines are a great way to increase your heart rate and exercise without the harmful effects on your joints associated with high-impact exercise. Another advantage is that elliptical machines can typically be pedaled front and backward, and most machines have moveable hand grips, meaning you can work many more muscles than by regular walking. If you are looking for a great workout that is easy on your thyroid but will help sculpt your body, the elliptical machine may be the way to go.
Cycling has many significant advantages. It’s a low-impact exercise, and it works many muscles simultaneously. In addition, it can help lower stress, decrease body fat, and protect from heart disease. Another perk of cycling is that it can be done outside on a beautiful day or indoors on a stationary bike.
Water aerobics is a fantastic way to burn calories, improve joint health, and tone muscle in an enjoyable atmosphere. Plus, so many options are available now, including Zumba, yoga, and even kickboxing workouts done in the water. Water aerobics could be the perfect solution if you are trying to exercise but want to be gentle on your joints.
In conclusion, while exercise offers various benefits for people with hypothyroidism -- including better energy levels, help with weight loss, and improved sleep quality -- the impact of high-intensity workouts on the thyroid should be carefully considered. Research suggests that high-intensity exercise may cause stress to the body, potentially affecting the levels of circulating thyroid hormones. Therefore, individuals with thyroid disease should be cautious and consider incorporating low-intensity workouts into their exercise routines to support their overall health. By being mindful of the potential effects of high-intensity exercise on the thyroid and making informed choices about physical activity, individuals can better manage their condition and improve their quality of life.
Before starting an exercise routine, check with your thyroid provider to ensure your thyroid is ready for exercise. The doctor will usually start by testing your thyroid function. You can get a jump on this process right from the comfort of your home using Paloma’s at-home testing kit. Results from this test can help guide your provider in determining how best to support your thyroid health.