Have you been told you just need to eat less and exercise more to lose weight with hypothyroidism? Then, you find yourself drastically cutting calories and exercising for hours everyday. You’re doing all the right things, but you’re somehow gaining weight and more tired than ever. Ahead, licensed physical therapist and personal trainer Angela Brown explains why this happens and what you can do instead.
How to set yourself up for successful workouts
Doing chronic cardio (a pattern of frequent workouts where you exceed 75% of your max heart rate for a sustained period of time) can negatively impact thyroid hormone metabolism by throwing the balance off between the adrenal hormones and the glucose metabolism, both of which are closely connected to thyroid health.
Remember, our hunter-gatherer ancestors did a lot of low-intensity walking and dynamic functional body movements while also not overdoing it. They had a lot of time to recover from any physical activity. When you engage in physical activity (especially cardio) for an extended period of time, you burn glucose. In turn, you deplete your glucose stores and need to replace them. Unfortunately, this can create a sugar-burning cycle.
Why does this matter? What happens is you get stuck in a cycle. You have to eat every few hours to help keep your blood sugar normalized otherwise your blood glucose drops and fluctuates too much. In turn, many people feel they need to exercise more often for a longer duration to burn off those extra calories. You end up on a never-ending hamster wheel of burning and consuming glucose.
Have you ever heard or maybe even thought, ”I can’t understand why I can’t lose weight. I am working out every day and eating right but nothing is happening!” This difficulty losing weight may be due to getting stuck in the sugar-burning cycle.
Similarly, when blood glucose spikes and drops chronically, the adrenal glands pay the price. The body thinks the massive fluctuation in glucose is a stressor and a surge of cortisol is sent to respond to this stressor.
Be careful of only doing low impact activities or avoiding strength training. While activities like yoga, pilates, and barre classes are very beneficial, symptoms of hypothyroidism can be exacerbated if not incorporating enough strength and resistance training, too.
One of the most frustrating symptoms of hypothyroidism is the difficulty in losing weight even if you are cutting calories and doing cardio for hours on end. Remember, hypothyroidism simply slows down the body’s metabolism and fat burning ability.
Norepinephrine and epinephrine are the adrenal hormones that enhance fat burning. These hormones lose their potential when the thyroid is sluggish. Also, low thyroid function makes it harder for the body to burn fat by shutting down the sites on the cells that respond to lipase, an enzyme that metabolizes fat. These factors continue to impact the “hamster-wheel” scenario.
Tips for exercising with hypothyroidism
If you are new to exercising, I suggest starting with one to three times a week and eventually working up to four to five days a week. The three types of exercises that I find work great for someone with a slow thyroid are muscle building, heart pumping, and mind boosting. Building muscle and strength without overdoing it can help you get your energy back and lose weight.
Compound movements will be key for someone with a slow thyroid. Compound exercises are multi-joint movements that work several muscles or muscle groups at one time. A great example of a compound exercise is the squat exercise or deadlift.
Hand weights and kettlebells are great equipment to use at home.
You might try these muscle-building exercises with weights:
- Squats with a kettlebell
- Lunges forward and backward (with or without weights)
- Bent over rows
- Bench press with dumbbells
- Dumbbell deadlift
- Overhead shoulder press
Body weight exercise is also a great way to build muscle:
- Push ups
- Pull ups
- Walking lunges
Heart pumping activities
Cardio should be short and very simple. Remember, long duration can be a stressor on the body and cause an issue for the thyroid. Cardio should be less than 20 minutes.
Try this framework:
- Jog in place for 20 seconds. Take a 1 minute break.
- Jog in place for 40 seconds. Take a 1 minute break.
- Jog in place for 60 seconds. Take a 1 minute break.
- Repeat several times and don’t go over 20 minutes total time.
You might also try swimming, sprinting, jumping jacks, or climbing stairs.
Mind boosting activities
There is nothing more enjoyable, in my opinion, than being outside in nature and just walking! You can even go for a hike if you are up for it. Put on your favorite music, audiobook, or podcast and just go! Remember, this is supposed to be slow and steady. This is not intended to elevate the heart rate high.
As you work to incorporate exercise, be sure to get plenty of rest and stay hydrated. As a general rule, you should only do exercise that makes you feel better. If you feel extremely tired after exercise and struggle to recover, this may mean that your adrenals aren’t up for it yet. I would take a step back and make sure you are doing adrenal-appropriate exercises like walking and getting outside or a much shorter weight training exercise routine.