When it comes to working out, more is more, right? Actually, wrong. Too much exercise might actually wreak havoc on your hormones. But how would you even know if your hormones weren't, in fact, ticking along perfectly? Okay, picture this: You've been hitting it hard at the gym but just not getting the results you want. Or, is that excess fat just not budging, no matter how many HIIT sessions you rack up on ClassPass? The likelihood is that your hormones are out of sync, according to our experts.
Hormones are chemical messengers that keep our bodies in a happy state of equilibrium. Unfortunately, crossed wires and miscommunications happen, and before you know it, your hormones are all over the place, and you're drowning your sorrows in vats of wine and ice cream (it's okay, we've all been there). So what causes our internal communication system to go haywire? It could be work stress, a high-sugar diet (probably driven by that work stress), or even too much exercise.
Jenni Rivett is a personal trainer who has built her method, Body by Rivett, around boosting beneficial hormones and suppressing the less beneficial ones (such as those that come from being too stressed out). Dr. Amy Lee is currently board certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine and is a member of the National Board of Physician Nutrition Specialists and the American Board of Obesity Medicine. We called on Rivett and Lee to explain the different hormones worth knowing about and how they affect us, plus how the right exercise can get everything back into balance.
Jenni Rivett is an international fitness and nutrition consultant. She is also an author, fitness journalist, and creator of four DVDs. She teaches between South Africa and London.
Dr. Amy Lee is the Head of Nutrition for Nucific and is an obesity medicine specialist dedicated to understanding exactly how food behaves in your body.
Can Exercise Help Balance Hormones?
Absolutely, says Lee: "The amount of movement and physical activity we do daily makes a huge impact on the hormonal responses of the body," she says. "For example, when we contract our muscle fibers, the movement and fiber activation communicate with the fat cells and adipose tissues by hormonal signaling. Our heart rate and the activation of our nervous system also cause our brain to release various hormones, which ultimately control how our peripheral organs respond. It is pretty amazing how every part of our body works together to ultimately carry out a mission," explains Lee.
Rivett has her own experience: "I used to suffer quite severely with PMS and was always astounded at how fabulous I felt after a workout. The PMS would almost always totally disappear," she says. "Since then, I have always been interested in the endocrine system and the role it plays in our health and wellness."
The endocrine system is comprised of glands around the body that are responsible for secreting our hormones at the correct levels to keep everything in our bodies flowing along nicely. All hormones play a valuable role in our day-to-day lives—including cortisol, which gets a bad rap, is known as the "stress hormone" but is actually vital for helping us get up in the mornings and dealing with any life and death situations.
But, Rivett and Lee have identified that some hormones serve us better than others: Certain hormones, like the human growth hormone, help keep us strong and healthy, so we should do what we can to optimize that hormone. Others, like cortisol, are best kept at a minimum so it can just do what's needed, rather than being triggered to spiral out of control.
"Exercise has a powerful effect on balancing, suppressing, and increasing certain hormones. Excess estrogen, insulin, and cortisol are the hormones responsible for weight gain, while HGH, testosterone, and progesterone are the ones responsible for keeping us lean," explains Rivett. "Leptin is another hormone, which, when too low, signals your body to store fat. Your body produces leptin while you sleep, so bad sleeping patterns can drastically lower the levels."
Which Hormones Are Impacted by Exercise?
Epinephrine/Norepinephrine (catecholamines) – responds to stress, both physical or psychological. "Exercise triggers the brain (hypothalamus) to induce the adrenal glands to secrete these hormones. These hormones play a role in how our bodies [metabolize] the foods we eat. Epinephrine plays the main role in lipolytic activity (fat metabolism)," says Lee.
Made by the pancreas on the arrival of glucose into the bloodstream, it rises and falls according to what you eat, but increases particularly with processed carbohydrates and sugary foods. Insulin signals your body to store fat.
Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress, low blood sugar and exercise. Excess cortisol leads to a raging appetite.
A wonderful hormone in the right amount, it makes conception and pregnancy possible. It's also a natural mood lifter. However, estrogen works in sync with progesterone, and both hormones need to be in balance. Progesterone helps balance estrogen, and in the right ratio, the two hormones help burn body fat, act as an antidepressant, assist metabolism and promote sleep. But if you don't have enough progesterone, such as in conditions like endometriosis, you can become Estrogen Dominant, which causes all manner of problems, from a sluggish metabolism and bloating to mood swings.
"Menopause symptoms are partly driven by the decline and imbalance of estrogen. An easy way to remedy this is with exercise. Try to get your heart rate up for at least 30 minutes daily, which helps boost your estrogen levels. This can buffer the worst of menopause symptoms," says Lee.
Human Growth Hormone
Quite simply one of the most powerful hormones. It's a fat burner, which forces your body to draw energy from your fat reserves first. HGH is produced in bucket loads after HIIT (in particular), strength training and plyometrics.2
"Human growth hormone also increases with exercise and controlled by hormones such as epinephrine/norepinephrine which are part of the sympathetic nervous system. Once induced, it plays a role in fat burn. Intensive exercise can increase HGH," explains Lee.
Even though testosterone is commonly associated with men, it's vitally important for women too. It builds muscle, burns fat, increases energy and sex drive, strengthens bones.3
"Regular physical activity can increase testosterone, helping to slow the natural effects of aging," says Lee
As mentioned earlier, this is a hormone that regulates menstrual function and pregnancy. Though it hasn't been conclusively proven, it's been theorized that excessive exercise may lower fertility in women through reduced progesterone levels.
Lee recommends regular exercise to help with mood and sleep: "Physical activity releases serotonin, which promotes a good night’s rest. Increasing your serotonin levels can boost mood, appetite, digestion, memory, and sexual drive."
How to Use Exercise to Balance Hormones
As you can probably tell, getting your hormones back to good or optimum levels is a balancing act. "While intense workouts improve your body chemistry, including levels of HGH and testosterone, you have to keep cortisol in check," explains Rivett. A HIIT class after a stressful day at work is probably the last thing you need. A typical workout week needs to be structured correctly to impact all the hormones positively, Rivett tells me.
High-intensity training can be used to your advantage, increasing beneficial hormones. "Types of exercises with different impact and intensity have shown to increase more of certain hormones. There is data that shows that high-intensity training (HIT) or resistant training helps improve the production of testosterone, which helps with building and maintaining lean muscle mass," adds Lee.
Steady-state exercise has its merits as well, particularly when it comes to mood regulation; Lee explains: "Cardio such as speed walking and running can increase overall dopamine and serotonin for an overall sense of calm for better night sleep and even just mood elevation. People have reported sleeping better after a good walk throughout the day."
"Know this: The right exercise will positively boost HGH, testosterone. Both of these are lean-making and youth-boosting hormones. It will balance progesterone, which is key to avoiding weight gain and energy drains. High levels of progesterone will have you burning more calories at rest. Exercise will also drive insulin (a fat hormone) down, and levels will normalize while keeping cortisol (another fat hormone) in check to prevent it from taking over your body. Fit and healthy people can more easily deal with elevated cortisol," explains Rivett.
The Best Exercises For Hormonal Imbalance
The best exercises for hormonal imbalance depend on each case. "I would first investigate if you are even experiencing a hormonal imbalance in the first place. I work in the weight management industry, so my patient population is addressing those who are overweight and obese," says Lee.
"Excess body fat (adipose) tissue, not only adds overall stress and inflammation to joints and organs which translates to overall effects on mood, an increase of pain, and worsening of fatigue; but it also adds stress onto organs such as the liver and sex organs," explains Lee.
Fatty tissue, when out of control, can secrete hormones that affect other hormones: "An example is its ability to secrete higher levels of sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG) into the serum which then attaches/binds onto active hormones and inactivate their role; which then cause slowing of the overall metabolism," adds Lee.
In these cases, you need to consider weight management by changing the way you eat and most definitely how you exercise to promote fat tissue burn.
"Females, for example, can also gain fat weight in the process of weight gain, which triggers the fat cells to secrete more estrogen which then suppresses the ovaries from functioning properly and these women can find themselves temporarily infertile due to this hormone imbalance" Lee explains. In these cases, losing weight can help improve fertility again. Even something as simple as brisk walking daily for 60 minutes and being mindful of diet can help with this, Lee tells me.
Some of the best types of exercise for hormonal balance, according to Rivett, include:
HIIT: 12 to 20 minutes, three times a week. There is no need to do any more than this.
Strength training: A general full-body routine two to three times a week with moves that include upper pushing (like pushup or overhead press), upper pulling (like a pull-up or row), lower pushing (like a squat or lunge), and lower pulling (like a deadlift or hip bridge).
Stretching: Five minutes after every session. Or, attend a yoga class, which will help with flexibility, and, of course, lower your level of stress hormones.
Walking: Four to five days a week. Walking is an amazing exercise to add to your existing program.
Don't sit still: If you sit at a desk all day, get up every hour, and do something for two minutes, be it making a tea or walking over to chat with a colleague rather than emailing them.
The Final Takeaway
"Acknowledging the hormone factor has been profound," Rivett says. "Knowledge is everything, and having the understanding of hormones has kept my clients motivated and, in turn, the results have come remarkably quicker."
Marquardt RM, Kim TH, Shin JH, Jeong JW. Progesterone and estrogen signaling in the endometrium: what goes wrong in endometriosis?
Boutcher SH. High-intensity intermittent exercise and fat loss.
Harvard Health Publishing. Testosterone—what it does and doesn't do.