Top 5 Exercise Tips for Thyroid Thrivers
Do you struggle with staying active since your thyroid issues began? Exercising with hypothyroidism or Hashimoto's comes with unique challenges and considerations. While it's crucial to our wellness to stay active and get regular physical movement, there’s a bit more to it than just getting the prescribed 30 minutes a day.
If you want to get the most benefit from your exercise, without undermining your health goals, getting injured, or ending up in worse shape than you started off, there are a few things you need to be aware of.
In this blog post and Thyroid-healthy Bites episode, we're going to cover the basics of thyroid-friendly exercise, with my Top 5 Exercise Tips for Thyroid Thrivers. This applies to you whether you’ve been diagnosed with hypothyroidism, Hashimoto’s, or Graves, if you’re a thyroid cancer survivor, or if you don’t have a thyroid.
I’ve interviewed and worked with several leading experts in the field of thyroid and/or autoimmune-friendly exercise, so this information is a melange of their best advice.
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Disclaimer: This information is for educational and inspirational purposes only. Always consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care or exercise regimen.
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What is "Thyroid-friendly" Exercise?
A simple way to define thyroid-friendly exercise is any fitness routine that provides you with the benefits of exercise and general fitness, without resulting in injury, further illness, or worsening symptoms.
Thyroid-friendly exercise is kind of like thyroid-healthy eating: It's all about finding what works and what doesn't work for YOU. With exercise, sometimes less truly is more, but as always, it depends on the individual.
If you're overtaxing your adrenals, if you're finding yourself extremely fatigued for days after an intense workout, if you're struggling with worsening joint pain, or are gaining weight in spite of eating less and exercising more, your thyroid may be asking you to reevaluate your routine.
As Thyroid Thrivers, it's important to be mindful of how we exercise. While we all have unique needs, ability levels, and health situations there are two universal thyroid-friendly exercise guidelines:
- Listen carefully to, and track the feedback your body gives you about exercise.
- Find your personal sweet spot that helps you stay strong and fit, without overdoing it.
Just because an expert says intense cardio may be bad for thyroid patients, doesn't necessarily mean you need to quit doing cardio if it's working for you, and helping you feel great. Likewise, if your Hashi's friend swears by her barre, BootCamp, or spin bike workouts to stay trim, that doesn't mean the same will be true for you.
As in all things, Thyroid Thriver, listen to, learn from, and honor thyself.
Now that we've got the general idea out of the way, let's zoom in on these Top 5 Tips for Thyroid-friendly Exercise.
Tip #1: Keep Moving!
With increased awareness around thyroid-friendly exercise, also comes angst. Kinda like thyroid-healthy eating, we become informed by well-meaning experts and influencers who use words like always and never, and we start to question our current choices: Do I need to quit running? Is my spin bike making me fat? Is yoga why my hips hurt?
It's normal to go through this process. Sometimes we discover changes we need to make because something we thought was good for us is no longer serving us anymore. Those discoveries can be difficult and it can take effort to course correct. The key is to not freak out, stay curious, keep listening to your body, tweaking your routine, and above all, STAY ACTIVE!
Unless your doctor has told you not to exercise (and you should certainly consult with them first), moving your body is as essential to your health as nutrient-dense food, and quality sleep. It boosts our happy hormones, our mood, our bone density, and has a laundry list of other physiological positives like decreased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes.
As Thyroid Thrivers, we already have enough issues like slow metabolism, increased fatigue, joint pain, and low mood standing in the way of our regularly scheduled workouts. Just like we need not become afraid to eat, we also need not become afraid to exercise, or afraid of certain types of exercise. It's all about finding what works for you and your beautifully unique body.
Inhale, exhale, and keep moving (unless otherwise directed)! Got it?
Tip #2: Sometimes, Less Really Is More
In other words, don't overdo it.
One particular mindset shift we can benefit from is letting go of outdated ideas like, "No pain, no gain," or "eat less and exercise more." Sometimes this conventional exercise wisdom can backfire when applied to those of us with thyroid, autoimmune, hormonal, and/or adrenal issues.
Why is the philosophy of pushing harder and exercising more a problem?
According to Functional Diagnostic Nutritionist, Katherine Watkins, what many people don’t realize is that too much exercise can actually be harmful. Exercising too frequently, too intensely, or for too long can push the body’s stress response past its limits, leading to a cascade of biochemical reactions that can seriously damage your health.
This is especially true if you are already dealing with a thyroid condition, adrenal fatigue (more accurately known as HPA axis dysfunction), or an autoimmune thyroid disease like Hashimoto’s or Graves. These conditions are aggravated by stress.
In the case of autoimmunity, the addition of too much exercise-induced oxidative stress can send the immune system into overdrive, leading to an autoimmune flare.
Pay attention to how your body responds following exercise, and notice any patterns or indications that you need to tweak things.
Signs you're overdoing it on exercise:
- Inability to complete workouts
- Finding that your endurance is declining rather than increasing with workouts
- Feeling exhausted or needing to nap 30 minutes after exercising
- Feeling exhausted for days or weeks after exercising
- Feeling faint or lightheaded with exercise
- Fever, chills, body aches, vertigo, or joint inflammation following workouts
Exercise is a source of physiological stress. It's also a perfect example of how not all stress is bad stress. When done in the appropriate amounts, and at the appropriate level for YOU, exercise is highly beneficial to our health. However, when we overdo it, the effects can become more negative than positive.
Rule of Thumb: According to Watkins who is also a certified personal trainer and Hashi's patient, you should feel energized and more or less great 30 minutes after a workout. If you can't bounce back and need to nap, that's a good indication you need to dial it back.
Your best guide, she says, will be how you feel the next day. If you feel energetic and balanced, with the same or slightly more energy than the day before, then you are probably on track. However, if you feel drained and exhausted, you’ve overdone it. If this happens to you, you may need to reduce the length and intensity of your next workout and increase your recovery time.
Tip #3: More Strength, Less Cardio
According to Dr. Emily Kiberd, founder of Thyroid Strong, if you have an underactive thyroid it's harder to maintain muscle mass. Hypothyroid myopathy or muscle weakness affects about 79% of people with hypothyroidism. Strength training helps build muscle, or what she calls the "Organ of longevity."
Muscles are a major target for thyroid receptors to receive the signaling of thyroid hormones. When the thyroid is underactive, type 2 muscle fibers will atrophy, making it harder to maintain our muscle mass. To have good thyroid hormone turnover, Kiberd says, we need to stimulate the muscles.
If you haven't already, it's important to incorporate strength training into your exercise program. Strength training helps to build muscle, boost metabolism, and burn fat. It also improves bone density and hormonal health.
Strength training doesn’t necessarily mean you have to lift heavy weights, although you can progress to this later. Start by lifting light to moderate weights, or engaging in other forms of resistance exercise (e.g. using resistance bands or your own body weight).
Why less cardio? When done too much at too high of an intensity, excessive cardio can trigger a stress response that floods the body with stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. This can trigger a chain reaction leading to increased symptoms, blood sugar imbalance, fat storage, or an exercise-induced autoimmune flare.
Less cardio does not necessarily mean NO cardio, but you may need to cut back on the duration, intensity, or frequency of your cardio workouts. Incorporating extra recovery days, or trading cardio for strength workouts can all lead to more positive results.
If you are suffering from a thyroid or adrenal condition, You may also find you benefit more from a different type of cardio than what you've been doing.
Watkins touts the benefits of interval training but warns that High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) might be too much for you in the early stages. You may find you benefit from interval training at a lower intensity. If HIIT is too much for you, look for MIIT (medium-intensity interval training) or LIIT (low-intensity interval training) workouts, like those in the Thyroid-friendly Workout Kit.
Tip #4: Start Slow, and Work Your Way Up
Smaller steps are safer and more sustainable when it comes to thyroid-friendly exercise. The baby step approach can help you avoid injury, fatigue, and symptom flare-ups. This is especially important for thyroid patients because we have an increased likelihood of certain physical complications and issues.
Common Physical Complications for Active Thyroid Patients:
To avoid complications, both Watkins and Kiberd recommend low-intensity mobility workouts if you're starting from Ground Zero. If you have been bedridden or sedentary for a long time, start by simply moving around more. Once you've effectively become more limber and free of pain, you can begin adding restorative workouts to your weekly routine, followed by strength training, and eventually, some cardio.
With each phase, remember to ease in, and work your way up.
With strength training, for example, start small, and as you progress, increase the number of reps and sets and add more weight. The body adapts very quickly and in as little as two weeks, you may need a different routine. This is a great sign that you are getting stronger!
If you find that you're suddenly exhausted, brain-fogged, and generally worse-off, pare back. Let yourself fully recover before trying again with a less intense or shorter routine.
Tip #5: Your Sweet Spot is a Moving Target
How exercise agrees or disagrees with us may be the result of one exercise session, your weekly exercise load, and/or whatever else is going on in your life and your health. Times of high stress warrant greater care with exercise. Remember to look at the big picture when finding your exercise sweet spot. This includes things like life or work stressors, hormonal changes, and our shifting needs as we age.
Why is this so important for thyroid patients?
In the words of fitness expert Debra Atkinson, "When you have a thyroid or autoimmune thyroid condition, what your body shows us [from overdoing it with exercise] is like an amplified version of what happens in the general population. It's just that you've got a more narrow road to drive down. You don't have the wiggle room that somebody else does."
These words, while perhaps disheartening, can be a comfort for those of us who may not have realized why exercise doesn't agree with us, or what once worked well for us, no longer does.
Atkinson echoes Watkins's advice that if you feel like you need to lay down and take a nap after a workout, it's too much. Practice self-care, self-love, and self-compassion by paring back and trying again. Keep tweaking until your workouts make you feel better, not worse. This is how we find that "Goldilocks" exercise routine that is not too much, not too little, but just right.
How to Find Your Exercise Sweet Spot:
- Don't just plow through. Create a plan, with flexibility
- Track your workouts and your body's response to workouts
- Factor in other life stressors when planning your workouts
- Adjust workout level, duration, and/or frequency as needed
- Don't skimp on strength training OR recovery time
Exercising with a thyroid issue can provide so many benefits, and also needs to be done with extra care and attention to avoid unwanted effects. The overall takeaway is to be more mindful about how we exercise. We must listen to the feedback of our bodies, and adjust accordingly.
"If we push too hard," Atkinson says, "It's like using on the accelerator of your car with no gas in it. Pretty soon, you're going to run out."
More Helpful Resources
- The Thyroid-friendly Workout Kit is for any Thyroid Thriver who wants to get informed about the why's and how's of thyroid-friendly exercise, and empowered with a variety of thyroid-friendly workouts from amazing experts. Whether you're wanting to up your game, or get active again, the Workout Kit gives you everything you need for an amazing price. GET 20% OFF with the code: WORKIT20.
- Emily Kiberd's Thyroid Strong Program is amazing for anyone who is ready to build muscle, tone up, and get strong. Emily is a doctor of chiropractic, a fitness expert, and a Hashimoto's patient who is now in remission. I think of her as the kettlebell queen. I've done Thyroid Strong and it cuts out all the fluff, maximizing your rate of return on the most minimal amount of exercise investment.
- Deborah Atkinson's Flipping 50 program is perfect for the menopausal, perimenopausal, or post-menopausal woman, because our changing hormones really change the exercise game, and Deb is THE expert to guide you through staying active in this season of life and beyond.