Exercise and staying active is important for overall health, but can be truly challenging for people who have an under-functioning thyroid gland. Dealing with fatigue, slowed metabolism, weight gain, mood swings, muscle pain, joint pain, and brain fog can make it feel impossible to exercise consistently. Living with Hashimoto’s has taught me a great deal about my body and how to optimize how I feel and perform, inside and outside the gym. My experience and research have led me to create a list of Do’s and Don’ts for exercise, specifically with individuals that have hypothyroidism, so they too can know the best way to stay fit and feel great.
- Increase N.E.A.T
- Not all activity needs to be “exercise.” N.E.A.T. stands for Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis – meaning all movement and activity that is not designated, formal exercise. By increasing a variety of movements throughout the day (fidgeting, playing with your kids, cleaning, increasing daily steps, standing more, etc.), you can expend more energy and burn more calories. By spreading your activity out all day long, you will also feel better! They say “sitting is the new smoking” which illustrates how detrimental being sedentary is to our health. Take a break each hour to stretch, walk, and move around. Squeeze in 15-20-minute walks on your lunch break or after dinner. All of these small efforts will add up and make a huge difference in the long run. I feel my very best when I consistently achieve > 10,000 steps per day and it helps me easily maintain a healthy weight.
- Work Smarter not Harder
- HIIT training is short and sweet, but intense. It has been shown to be effective exercise for promoting fat loss and the “after burn” meaning your body continues to burn more calories post-workout. One HIIT session, when done correctly, can be completed in 20 minutes or less and only needs to be done twice per week for results. Two to three weight training sessions per week, no more than 30 minutes, can be extremely effective for metabolic support, improved energy, and a slimmer physique as well. Plan to do these more intense exercises on days you are feeling more energetic and able to perform well.
- The recovery phase of any fitness journey is just as important, if not more, than the actual activity. This is especially true for those with an under-active thyroid. With hypothyroidism, individuals struggle with fatigue, so it is extremely important to rest as needed and prioritize quality sleep. Recovery is needed to rebuild muscle and allow the body to restore itself. Give your body what it’s asking for and do not feel like you need to “tough it out” and hit the gym 6 days a week, this can actually hinder your efforts. Rest days do not mean lying around and doing absolutely nothing, rather active recovery involves stretching, light walks, foam rolling, proper hydration/nutrition, etc.
- Eat to Fuel
- Eat enough. Let me repeat that, eat ENOUGH, which most likely means more than you are used to eating. Many of my clients (mostly the women I work with) are substantially under-eating (and usually unintentionally). They become stuck in a chronic caloric deficit, which contributes to their chronic fatigue. This creates a vicious cycle and causes their performance to suffer or perhaps exercise to not even happen at all. Fuel your body with adequate macronutrients (carbs, protein, fats) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients). Sufficient carbohydrate consumption is also vital – the best sources for thyroid health include non-gluten containing grains, root vegetables, and fruits. The amount differs per person and is also dependent on the types and frequency of activity, so experiment to determine what works best. Consuming carbohydrates pre and post workout is most advantageous for glycogen restoration and muscle repair/growth.
- Push the Limits
- Excess cardio or intense training can stress the body unnecessarily. This excess stress can increase Reverse T3 (which puts the breaks on the effectiveness of the active T3 hormone) and cortisol levels, which both inhibit the body’s fat burning ability. Trying HIIT sessions instead, where you get the cardiovascular benefits of cardio, without elevating stress hormones, is a better approach.
- Compare Yourself
- It will always be you versus you. The person you were yesterday versus the person you are today and will be tomorrow. Comparison is the thief of joy, and comparing yourself to others who are likely at a different stage of their fitness journey and don’t have the same health conditions, is a sure way to zap motivation and breed discouragement. Focus on the goals you set for yourself and track all the progress you make, big or small, and celebrate every accomplishment. You will never be someone else, but you can be a better version of yourself. Hypothyroidism produces its own set of obstacles to physical and mental health, so remember how your unique situation should not be equated with other’s unique situation.
- Exercise Only to Lose Weight
- Exercise is good for the body for so many other reasons than just weight loss. There is endless research to support the mood and cognitive enhancing effects that exercise can have. This is wonderful news, since many individuals with thyroid disease also deal with anxiety, depression, mood swings, and brain fog. In addition, viewing exercise only as a means to “burn off” the food you ate can train your brain to think of exercise as a punishment, rather than a reward, or doing something healthy for your mind and body.
- Ignore Your Body
- It can be hard at times, but please listen to you body when it is trying to speak to you! Symptoms are the way that our body communicates, so a few signs that you are over-exercising include an inability to recover post-workout, frequent injuries, disturbed sleep, lowered immune function, prolonged soreness, and fatigue. Take these as a sign that you are over-training and need to incorporate more rest and active recovery days. As someone who finds it difficult to take a day off and rest, I understand the struggle! I simply remind myself that I cannot train at my best if I do not allow my body to recover too. Days where I need extra rest give me an opportunity to enjoy other hobbies and decompress: reading, art, piano, cooking, etc. Enjoy the balance and listen and respect what your body is telling you.
- Harvard Health Publishing: Harvard Medical School. Use the NEAT factor (nonexercise activity thermogenesis) to burn calories. January, 2015. https://www.health.harvard.edu/diet-and-weight-loss/use-the-neat-factor-nonexercise-activity-thermogenesis-to-burn-calories
- McCall, P. American Counsel on Exercise. Benefits of HIIT Training: 8 Reasons HIIT Workouts are So Effective. https://www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/lifestyle/blog/5073/8-reasons-hiit-workouts-are-so-effective
- Kuhland, J. Breakingmuscle.com. Essential
Elements Of Rest And Recovery.
- Shah, A, M.D. Mindbodygreen.com. Why Too Much Cardio is Bad For You (And What To Do Instead). Jan 30, 2019. https://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-18370/why-too-much-cardio-is-bad-for-you-and-what-to-do-instead.html
- Charles, S. Waldenu.edu. 5 Mental Benefits of Exercise. https://www.waldenu.edu/online-bachelors-programs/bs-in-psychology/resource/five-mental-benefits-of-exercise
- Precor.com. 7 Signs to Tell If You’re Overtraining. https://www.precor.com/en-us/resources/7-signs-tell-if-youre-overtraining