Like a conductor of an orchestra, your hormones are your body’s chemical messengers. They are responsible for orchestrating a variety of bodily functions, including getting a good night’s sleep and maintaining a normal menstrual cycle.
When hormones are out of balance (meaning some are too high while others are too low), people often look to diet and supplements to bring them back to their optimal levels. After all, certain foods, such as those high in sugar, can trigger elevated levels of certain hormones, like insulin—the hormone that directs cells to store blood sugar for energy. But your workout routine can also be a tipping point for hormone regulation and is often overlooked way to keep them balanced.
“Exercise is one of the ways we can communicate to our body and to our endocrine system—the glands around the body that are responsible for secreting our hormones at the correct levels,” explains Erica Zellner, MS , health coach at Parsley Health Los Angeles . “Some of the hormones that are influenced by exercise include insulin, cortisol , estrogen, testosterone, human growth hormones and progesterone.” Because movement has such a powerful impact on hormones, Parsley Health doctors and health coaches use it to understand how it’s affecting a member’s hormones and make exercise recommendations for hormone balancing.
Using exercise to balance hormones is part of a balancing act, Zellner explains. Exercise is a form of stress because it’s taxing on the body. When you’re sprinting hard, for instance, you’re putting a strain on your muscles, energy systems, and heart. Depending on your current state of well-being, this could be a good or bad thing for you.
“It’s the difference between eustress and distress. Eustress is a positive type of stress—one that creates strength and resilience. Distress, on the other hand, is a negative form of stress and is the one we most commonly associate with the word stress,” she says. “We want to make sure we’re causing enough stress to strengthen you, but not so much that we cause other problems.”
Too much exercise can lead to overtraining syndrome , a condition that causes fatigue , depression, insomnia and irritability, Zellner says. “In addition to exacerbating stress, it can suppress immune function, and cause GI disturbance and injuries due to overtraining and fatigue,” she explains.
According to a September 2019 study in BMC Sports Science, Medicine & Rehabilitation , overtraining syndrome can be triggered by insufficient intake of protein , carbs, and calories. This can cause reduced levels of cortisol and late growth hormone and adrenocorticotropic hormone (aka the hormone that regulates how you respond to stress) responses. The same study also showed that overtraining syndrome reduces testosterone-to-estradiol ratio, which can cause mood swings and affect body composition and metabolism. In women, high levels of estradiol are associated with acne , depression, low sex drive, weight gain and even breast cancer.
But whether the type of exercise you do turns into distress and becomes detrimental to your hormones differs from person to person, Zellner says. Zellner also notes that men and women have different outcomes when using exercise to balance hormones. For example, if you’re looking to balance the sex hormones testosterone and progesterone, men might see better results with explosive movements and weight training, while women respond better to moderate-intensity resistance training.
So how do you know what type of exercise you should be doing to balance your hormones? Should you dial the intensity up or down? At Parsley Health visit, doctors have you complete a robust questionnaire before your first visit about your health, lifestyle, and family history of disease, including any medications and supplements you’re already taking. Then, your doctor and health coach will go through this questionnaire with you and make exercise recommendations based on your health history, symptoms you’re dealing with, and results of in-depth lab testing.
“Each member will have a unique [exercise] recommendation based on their health goals, health status, and other factors like preference and time constraints,” Zellner says. “Ultimately, at Parsley, we take a multi-faceted approach to healing the body, using diet, supplements, medication when necessary, stress reduction, sleep, and movement.”
That said, it’s good to be aware of the hormones that are affected by your fitness routine. Here, Zellner shares how your workouts could influence these hormones, and the adjustments you can make to help with any hormonal imbalances.
Cortisol is secreted from your adrenal glands in response to stress, tension, and anxiety . It elicits your body’s fight-or-flight response and is responsible for managing your blood sugar levels, metabolism, and even your memory. According to the Endocrine Society , it also supports the development of the fetus during pregnancy .
Exercise naturally raises your cortisol levels, so if you’re already experiencing chronic stress, then doing any high-intensity exercise might not be a good idea for you, Zellner says. “This would be counterproductive since high-intensity exercise sends a signal to the body that there’s imminent danger. In this scenario, it’s much better to focus on low-level, restorative movement,” she explains.
On the other hand, high-intensity exercise can be used to help lower cortisol levels. “In a healthy individual, intense exercise will cause a short-term spike in cortisol levels, but studies show that after this spike, overall cortisol decreases,” Zellner says. If you’re unsure if high-intensity exercise is right for you, your Parsley Health doctor can help you determine how it impacts your cortisol. Zellner notes that moderate-intensity exercise doesn’t cause cortisol to skyrocket and helps lower it, so can be a great option for many.
When your cortisol levels are out of whack, it can cause weight gain, mood swings, insomnia and high blood pressure, among other health issues. In more serious cases, it can cause a condition known as Cushing syndrome, or hypercortisolism, according to the Mayo Clinic .
People with Cushing syndrome tend to experience rapid weight gain in the face, and around the abdomen, chest, and shoulders. They may also suffer from acne and irregular periods . In addition, Cushing syndrome is linked to osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
“Exercise and cortisol are a delicate balance. If you’re dealing with high cortisol levels or cortisol dysregulation, then you’ll need to stick to low-intensity exercise, such as yoga, walking, hiking and tai chi,” Zellner says.
As one of the main sex hormones for women, estrogen plays a plethora of roles: It keeps your menstrual cycle normal and protects your bones and heart. Your ovaries are the main source of your estrogen, but your adrenal glands also produce some of it.
When you take certain medications, such as birth control pills, or are exposed to endocrine disruptors , you could develop estrogen dominance, which is when your estrogen is high relative to your progesterone. If your estrogen levels are too high, it can cause irregular periods , weight gain, fatigue, and low libido .
According to a February 2017 review in Current Obesity Reports , endocrine disruptors, such as parabens, phthalates, and BPA, bind to estrogen hormone receptors, causing changes in appetite and food preferences which lead to weight gain.
To help reduce symptoms associated with estrogen dominance, such as weight gain and fatigue, Zellner suggests doing a combination of HIIT, strength training and cardio and limiting HIIT to one to two times a week. “A condition like estrogen dominance is complex, and it takes a multi-faceted approach, including supporting detox pathways (one of these is sweat), the food a person is consuming, stress, sleep and other lifestyle factors.
Your brain and pituitary gland at the base of your brain produce testosterone, a male sex hormone that’s also produced by women in small amounts. In men, testosterone regulates sex drive, sperm production, bone mass, muscle mass and strength, and more, while in women it plays a role in bone mass and ovarian function. Low testosterone in men could lead to decreased sex drive, fatigue, hair loss, and mood changes while high testosterone in women can cause symptoms like acne, irregular period, hair thinning, and decreased sex drive.
If you want to build stronger and bigger muscles, you need to make sure you have optimal testosterone levels. That’s because testosterone is essential for the repair of damaged muscle tissue from exercise, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE) .
“You may want to use high-intensity workouts to stimulate human growth hormone or testosterone,” Zellner says. “Exercise can increase testosterone levels. The best is explosive, powerful movements that work the larger muscle groups, such as squats, jumping (plyometric training) and resistance training,” she says.
If you have high testosterone levels, however, Zellner says that an intense exercise program isn’t the best approach. For example, doing excess endurance exercises like triathlons and marathons will suppress testosterone but at the expense of raising cortisol, Zellner explains. Instead, she recommends focusing on following a moderate exercise routine and addressing the root causes of high testosterone.
“Ultimately, we need to figure out why a woman has higher testosterone levels. Some common reasons include polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS ) and congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH),” she says.
Speaking of HGH, it’s responsible for increasing muscle mass and decreasing body fat and is stimulated by HIIT and resistance training, according to the ACE . Think box jumps, sprinting, and doing heavy lifts. Just like testosterone, HGH helps promote muscle growth, while also supporting immunity and regulating your metabolism .
Growth hormone deficiency is categorized as a rare disease , but HGH does naturally decline with age.
“All exercise provides a short-term boost in HGH, but HIIT or sprint repeats tend to have the biggest impact,” Zellner says.
There’s a reason some doctors will prescribe melatonin to those who aren’t getting enough snooze time, melatonin regulates sleep and helps support your circadian rhythm. During the day, your melatonin levels are low, but as you become exposed to less daylight, your melatonin levels decrease.
“Working out in the morning can positively affect melatonin levels at night,” Zellner says. “Regular morning exercise outdoors improves sleep rhythms and tells your body to produce melatonin earlier in the evening. This has a positive effect on your sleep, which further improves overall hormone balance,” she says. By increasing melatonin earlier, you’ll be able to fall asleep faster. That’s one reason Zellner may recommend morning exercise for someone with sleep issues.
If you don’t have trouble falling or staying asleep, working out later in the afternoon or early evening may be fine for you. Just make sure it’s not too close to your bedtime, because it can increase your body temperature, heart rate, and nervous system activity, affecting your ability to fall asleep.
Every time you eat something, your pancreas produces insulin to transfer glucose in your blood to the cells in your muscles and liver. The problem is, when you don’t produce enough insulin or secrete it effectively, then your blood sugar levels build up, which can put you at risk for developing prediabetes and type 2 diabetes.
However, exercise can help improve insulin sensitivity by promoting the absorption of glycogen, which is your source of fuel, in your muscles. “Exercise helps move sugar into muscles for storage and promotes increased insulin sensitivity for up to 48 hours after working out,” Zellner says. “While both aerobic and resistance training increase insulin sensitivity , combining both appears to be most effective.”
Zellner recommends doing HIIT a few times a week to improve insulin sensitivity. In fact a January 2015 study in Diabetes Spectrum shows that HIIT training can help improve glucose levels and provide cardiometabolic benefits in people with type 2 diabetes and prediabetes. It’s important to note, though, that using exercise to improve insulin sensitivity has to be done under professional care. “If cortisol imbalance is also impacting a person, then too much exercise could actually make your body less sensitive to insulin,” Zellner says. That’s why working with a trained specialist like the doctors at Parsley is crucial for optimizing your hormone health.
Exercise shouldn’t be the only thing you use to balance hormones if you do have a hormonal issue, but it should be part of an overall holistic approach.
Tiffany Ayuda is a New York City-based editor and writer passionate about fitness, nutrition, health, and wellness. She has held previous editorial roles at Prevention, Eat This, Not That, Daily Burn, and Everyday Health. Tiffany is also a certified personal trainer through the American Council on Exercise. When she's not writing or breaking up a sweat, Tiffany enjoys cooking up healthy meals in her Brooklyn kitchen.