Stress plays a key role in triggering polycystic ovarian syndrome symptoms… yet many us still do hugely stressful workouts. Writer Charley Ross knows first-hand, however, how transformative resistance training can be for the condition and talks to other PCOS survivors about getting strong.
Whether we like it or not, a woman’s exercise regime is determined by much more than a workout schedule and how much sleep you’ve had the night before. Shifts in hormone levels can seriously affect your energy levels, your motivation to exercise, and what you get out of it when you do it. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
I was diagnosed with a hormonal disorder – polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) – when I was a teenager. I vividly remember the freezing cold gel oozing over my stomach as a nurse performed the ultrasound examination, pointing out the cysts on my ovaries.
I was told that it shouldn’t affect my daily life too much, but due to the lack of research into the condition (which is still the case today), that platitude doesn’t answer the questions I had. And because it’s a syndrome that manifests differently from person to person, it’s hard to know how it might affect your exercise routine and how best to counteract it.
What we do know, however, is that PCOS can cause insulin resistance (which leads to high blood sugar levels), higher testosterone levels and problems with your metabolism – as well as an array of mental health problems. People living with PCOS may find that their symptoms present physical, mental and emotional barriers to exercise.
While more research is definitely needed into many areas of PCOS (101,000 people signed a petition demanding it last year), people with the condition are taking solutions into their own hands, with many hailing strength training as a means of dealing with a range of their symptoms.
Strength training for mental and physical PCOS symptoms
I discovered this link a few months into my strength training journey, but have since used specific resistance training-based workouts to counteract both mental and physical symptoms of PCOS. Some theories have been supported by medical research, others are under-researched and favoured by holistic practices. But whichever side of the wellness fence you sit on, the trend is undeniable.
Klaudia, 32, tells Stylist that she credits strength training as the “best avenue” she could’ve found to stay in shape while dealing with her PCOS symptoms. Alongside changes to her diet and sleep routine, she believes that making time to strength train two-to-three times a week helped to make the “perfect cocktail” for reducing discomfort caused by her cysts, as well as alleviating the symptoms that come with the syndrome, such as an unpredictable metabolism.
“Exercise is really important when it comes to conditions caused by hormone imbalances, but even more important is doing the right exercise,” says Claire Snowdon-Darling, an alternative health practitioner specialising in hormones.
“In the case of PCOS, resistance training is an excellent tool to alleviate symptoms. Research has shown it can improve ovulation, reduce insulin resistance and lower excess oestrogen and testosterone levels. The imbalances of these hormones are the main causes of PCOS.”
For Despina Pavlou, PT and host of The PCOS Oracle podcast, strength training is a “key component in any PCOS treatment plan” for her clients, particularly in addressing the “root cause” of symptoms, because they are all so tightly linked. “Consistently adhering to a good strength training program can, in the long term, help with hormone balance and the reversal of PCOS symptoms,” she says.
Holistic health coach Ellie Jordan believes that strength training is “a way of making cells more responsive to your insulin and testosterone levels”. She has used it, along with yoga, to regulate her own PCOS symptoms, particularly acne.
“Now that I understand the link between insulin and testosterone and the effects it can have on the skin, I know that the most important part of PCOS management is exercise,” she says. “Specifically, strength training is a great way to make our cells more responsive to insulin and improve weight management – which is so crucial in a condition like PCOS.”
More medical research might be needed to fully explain why women with PCOS are identifying these links. “It may be because strength training promotes muscle growth, which may use more testosterone and so reduce the levels of testosterone in the blood,” suggests Dr Claire Pettitt, a PCOS dietitian and nutritionist. While we desperately need more research to draw any large conclusions, anecdotally, plenty of women have found lifting weights to be a key part of managing their condition.
Doing too much exercise can make PCOS symptoms worse
As ever, implementing strength training into your routine must be done with caution and sensitivity. Jordan stresses the need to not over-train, as this can aggravate your PCOS symptoms: “Over-exercising can cause you to secrete more cortisol, which raises testosterone levels, so it’s important to include a mix of strength, HIIT and something like yoga to help regulate hormones.”
Madeleine, 36, has managed to combine both strength training and yoga to alleviate her PCOS symptoms. “I use my body weight to do a series of yoga-inspired exercises to strengthen and tone without causing spikes in cortisol and testosterone,” she says. In other words, it’s all about what works best for you and your symptoms.
Weight lifting to help manage PCOS anxiety
People with PCOS have been found to be three times more likely to suffer from anxiety, and are more likely to suffer from other mental health issues, too. I’ve written before about how strength training has improved my relationship with my body, and weight lifting has been a great way to refocus from anxious thoughts, due to the complete concentration it requires on both your form and safety.
I’m not alone in understanding and experiencing the very real mental benefits that resistance training can provide to PCOS survivors. Shimrit, 36, explains: “I enjoy exercise in a way I couldn’t have imagined doing when I first got my diagnosis. A massive part of this was shifting my mindset from seeing exercise as something I had to do to lose weight because of my PCOS, to seeing it as something I wanted to do to help with my mental health and general fitness.”
The scope that strength training has for helping to alleviate PCOS symptoms – physically and mentally – could be huge. Hopefully, with wider research in years to come, we will be able to push it even further. But for now, Pettitt stresses the importance of also asking dietitians, nutritionists and other PCOS experts how best to counteract your specific symptoms.
“It is really important to understand your PCOS, your symptoms and your biochemistry,” she says. “You need to tailor any lifestyle changes to you, which is why getting personalised advice from experts who specialise in PCOS can be really helpful.”