Exercise is a First-Line Treatment for PCOS
You all know that I’m a dietitian, so of course I think food is medicine. Nutrition is a first line of treatment for PCOS, but so is exercise. Exercise is one of the most important lifestyle changes you can make to improve overall health with PCOS. It can also impact your symptoms, energy, mood, and even cycle regularity.
Our body uses energy in lots of ways, to make your heart pump, hair grow, brain think, and so much more. Exercise and movement encourage our metabolism to burn off the energy (food) we give our body instead of storing all of that energy as fat.
Thankfully, most of us do not need to store too much energy. We have the food resources we need when we need them. We can head over to the grocery store or farmer’s market, we can order Instacart or UberEats, or we can swing by a fast food drive-thru. There are so many ways for most of us to get food. Because of this, we do not need to store energy in our body. This would be different if food were scarce or we didn’t know how or where our next meal was coming from.
Physical activity is a normal part of the human experience. For millennia we have hunted, farmed, churned our own butter, and ran from predators. Our modern society, culture, work environment, food production, screen-based culture is incredibly divorced from the type of physical activity of our ancestors.
When we remove the normal physical activity for food sourcing, building our own shelters, farming – we need to find ways to replace that even though we may not do those activities any longer.
Some storage of energy is beneficial for us even though we don’t live a lifestyle similar to our ancestors. We need a cushion for our organs, fat cells to make hormones, and storage of energy in case we get sick.
Excess adipose tissue can actually create hormonal imbalances. Fat cells are metabolically active, which means they make hormones and other molecules like inflammatory chemicals. If we have too much fat storage, our hormone levels are impacted and cause inflammation and an overabundance of hormones. That’s one of the big reasons why we need to exercise, we need to use the energy (food) we consume instead of storing what we don’t need. Exercise plays a role in weight maintenance, but there are so many more benefits of exercise other than just using excess energy!
What are the benefits of exercising for PCOS?
Exercise can help women with PCOS with many symptoms. Exercise supports our body to have metabolic flexibility, improves fasting insulin and glucose, manages a healthy weight, fights off depression/anxiety, clears out excess androgens, and helps us send signals to our brains when to eat and when to stop eating. That’s a LOT of benefits and there are even more than that! Let’s talk about each of these.
Exercise Increases Metabolic Flexibility
Exercise allows us to have “metabolic flexibility” which means we can transition easily from a fasted state (like, when we’re sleeping for hours) to a fed state (breakfast). Women with PCOS tend to have “metabolic inflexibility”. (2) That means our bodies struggle to use stored energy (fat) in times of fasting or exercise. It is believed this is in part related to higher levels of circulating insulin.
Have you been the person who did the diet perfectly and exercised all the time and still didn’t lose any weight? This may be why!
Exercise, over time, can help with metabolic flexibility, allowing your body to work with you in times of fasting and exercise to use your stored energy (fat tissue) instead of trying to pull from only the glucose levels in your blood. Exercise helps our bodies to know we can burn those calories (aka energy, food) instead of hoarding them in our storage units (aka fat cells, adipose tissue).
Metabolic inflexibility is dangerous because it has been linked to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. But, that’s where exercise can help. Exercise allows our body to burn higher amounts of energy even when we are in a rested state. So, that walk you went on earlier, that’s helping you RIGHT NOW! That’s why it’s important to keep at it. Exercising regularly is the goal!
Exercising regularly helps increase metabolic flexibility, so you can use fat tissue during overnight fasts and exercise. This will help those of us with PCOS obtain a healthy weight over time.
Exercise Improves Fasting Insulin and Fasting Glucose Levels
Glucose and insulin work closely together, like BFFs. We need insulin to tell most of our cells (muscle, liver, and fat cells) to take glucose into the cell and convert glucose to energy. If glucose cannot enter the cell, the cell cannot make energy. Insulin is like a house key that opens the front door for glucose welcoming it inside. Without insulin showing up, glucose cannot go inside. So, we need BOTH!
I’d like to interject here – because many women with PCOS struggle with insulin resistance it can become normal to build a negative attitude toward insulin. However, without insulin, we can’t live. If your body stopped making insulin you would need to inject yourself with it or you would die. We NEED insulin. We just don’t want too much of it.