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A Guide to Exercising With PCOS

Written by
Team Nutrisense
Reviewed by
Cheri Bantilan
MS, RD, CD
a person having a stomach-ache

PCOS, or polycystic ovary syndrome, is an endocrine disorder that affects the ovaries and reproductive system. The ovaries of those with PCOS produce more androgens (a group of sex hormones that males traditionally make more of) in higher amounts than usual. Women typically have a small number of androgens. PCOS causes those levels to skyrocket in a way that affects their menstrual cycle and quality of life, among other things.

It's also called polycystic ovarian syndrome and may result in a deficit of the hormones needed to ovulate. When people develop PCOS, their bodies stop ovulating correctly. They then develop small cysts (fluid-filled sacs) in their ovaries. These cysts make androgens, the cause of most PCOS symptoms. 

In some cases, people may also develop PCOS because of insulin resistance. Your body makes insulin to control the amount of sugar that enters your bloodstream. Insulin resistance is a common cause of type 2 diabetes and may cause your body to produce too many androgens. This insulin resistance may lead to diabetes and create issues in your cardiovascular system. It may also lead to problems like obesity, hinder weight management, and affect your nervous system.

But there is good news regarding the regulation of PCOS! Regular exercise can lower cholesterol levels and improve mood by releasing endorphins into the bloodstream. It's also an effective way to manage some PCOS symptoms. While engaging in intense exercise with PCOS can sometimes seem challenging, specific physical activities may help manage and improve your condition. Read on to find out more about the symptoms of PCOS and some exercises you can try.  

What Are the Symptoms of PCOS?

a woman lying down, holding her stomach

You may start to experience the symptoms of PCOS as early as your first period. Sometimes, the condition can go unnoticed until you have unexplained weight gain, experience irregular periods, or have trouble conceiving. It's possible to have PCOS and not know because not everyone experiences overt symptoms. Remember that factors like obesity can increase the prevalence of some of the symptoms of PCOS. 

Some of the most common symptoms of PCOS include:

Weight Gain

Weight Gain experienced by those with PCOS usually occurs around the stomach. According to the US National Library of Medicine 40 to 80 percent of people suffering from PCOS are overweight. The condition can also make weight management more challenging and lead to issues like obesity.

Irregular Periods

Those with PCOS may experience irregular periods, light periods, or missed periods during their menstrual cycle. Some experience very heavy menstrual bleeding when they get their periods.

Trouble Conceiving

People often discover they have PCOS when they try to become pregnant. It's because they cannot ovulate correctly or at all. As ovulation becomes less frequent, the chance of infertility increases.

Abnormal Hair Growth

A woman. brushing out wet hair

People who have PCOS may experience abnormal (excess) hair growth on their face and body due to the rise in androgens. For some people, it may result in hirsutism, which affects around 10 percent of women

Acne

Many people experience unexplained instances of acne or suddenly oily skin when they develop PCOS. Acne caused by PCOS is often difficult to treat.

Headaches

Headaches are a less common symptom of PCOS, but they do occur. They usually have ties to the hormonal imbalances you can experience when you have the condition. 

Hair Loss

Hair loss and thinning hair may occur due to unbalanced hormone levels when you have PCOS.

Skin Patches

It's also known as acanthosis nigricans. People who suffer from PCOS may begin to see dark patches of skin forming around their necks, armpits, groin, and under their breasts.

Skin Tags

A woman in a plait with her back turned, stretching

PCOS symptoms can also include skin tags. These are small pieces of excess skin or flaps of skin, usually found around the armpits or neck.

Mood Fluctuations

For many people, mood fluctuations are more prevalent when they're suffering from a condition like PCOS. Frequent mood fluctuations can also lead to other conditions, like anxiety and depression.

Diagnosing PCOS

A woman at the doctor's office, getting a consultation

If you have any recognizable symptoms of PCOS, your doctor will first review your family history. PCOS also sometimes leads to issues like hypertension (a study found that 40 percent of women with PCOS had elevated blood pressure). Meta-analyses on women's health found that it may put some at increased risk of cardiovascular disease. PCOS may also affect things like BMI and body composition. So, it's always a good idea to find and address the issue. If you have family members with PCOS, your likelihood of sharing that condition with them is higher.

The most common ways your doctor will test for PCOS include:

Pelvic Exams: A pelvic exam will allow your doctor to examine your reproductive organs. They will likely check them both from the inside and outside of your body.

Blood Tests: Blood tests will be able to check the levels of your hormones, specifically androgens. Your doctor may also screen your blood glucose levels, triglyceride levels, and cholesterol levels. 

UltraSounds: An ultrasound will allow your doctor to check your tissues, organs, and blood vessels. It will help them check for any signs of cysts on your ovaries and see if your ovaries are inflamed. 

Exercise is Good For PCOS Management

A woman on a yoga mat meditating with an orange bottle  and ipad in front of her

Making adjustments to the amount of physical activity in your life may impact polycystic ovary syndrome's effect on your body and long-term health. Exercise may improve ovulation and menstrual health, insulin sensitivity, weight gain, mental health disorders, and cardiovascular health, which are linked with PCOS. 

Any type of exercise of moderate intensity may help with overall wellness. It can also help you manage your body weight and combat some PCOS symptoms. The key is to find a regular exercise routine that fits your personality, lifestyle, and interests. You may need to experiment to find the routine that suits your unique needs. Remember, physical activity should be challenging but fun. 

With any physical exercise, it's important to remember to take it easy when you start something new. Whether your goal is adding muscle mass or losing body fat, remember not to push your body to the point of pain. Always warm up and cool down by stretching and continuing with light movements like brisk walking. If you're trying a new sport or workout, it can be helpful to train with a professional for a session or two to ensure that you are using the correct form and pushing yourself the right amount.

From resistance training and squats to HIIT training and moderate-intensity cardio, many forms of physical exercise can help PCOS. Here are some types of exercise to consider:

Aerobic Exercise

An image of various aerobic exercises

Aerobic exercise, also known as endurance training, is a physical activity meant to increase your heart rate and breathing. Aerobic exercise has links to improved cardiovascular, circulatory, and lung health. Doctors often recommend this type of exercise to prevent type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Cardiovascular exercises are one of the common types of aerobic exercise.

Flexibility Exercises

an image of various flexibility exercises

Flexibility exercises like squats and lunges focus on allowing your body to move more freely and have, well, more flexibility! While working on your flexibility and stretching, remember to breathe deeply and be patient. Pushing yourself too deeply into a stretch can result in injuries. It's best to work with a trainer or physical therapist to avoid any damage when you're just starting here.

Strength Training

An image of various strength training exercises

Strength training focuses on making your muscles bigger and stronger. Stronger muscles lead to stronger bones and better posture.

Other PCOS Treatments

a woman holding  glass of water in one hand and a pill in the other

Along with changes in your physical fitness regime, your doctor will likely recommend dietary changes. Physical fitness and dietary health go hand-in-hand, especially when treating diseases and conditions like PCOS. 

Changes in your diet will also help regulate blood sugar levels and insulin use, weight loss, moods, hair health, and skin health. Whether you need minor or drastic changes in your diet, you may want to consider working with a licensed dietitian to understand your body’s needs. 

Other Treatments Include:

Diabetes Medication: Diabetes medication can lower insulin levels, reduce androgen levels, and regulate ovulation in women with PCOS. 

Medications to Induce Ovulation: If PCOS affects your ability to ovulate, your doctor may prescribe a drug that will induce ovulation.

Birth Control Pills: Birth control methods can help regulate your menstrual cycle, treat acne, and reduce hair growth.

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