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Exercise and Hormones: Staying Balanced and Healthy

Holly Smith

By: Holly Smith, M.D. - Osteopathic Medicine, B.S. - Dietetics, NASM-PES Certified Trainer,

Writer, The Fit Father Project & Fit Mother Project

exercise and hormones

Want to keep your hormones in balance? There is a connection between exercise and hormones — and it could be the key to your overall health.

Exercise is one of the best things we can do for our bodies.

Daily activity and workouts improve health in so many ways and bring about positive changes not only in how we look, but also in how we feel.

One of the ways in which exercise brings about these benefits is through its effect on hormones.

Hormone levels change as women age. In addition, our hormones are constantly fluctuating throughout the day.

So how does exercise impact hormones throughout our lives and on a daily basis?

Keep reading to learn more about the connection between exercise and hormones.

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Exercise and Hormones

Testosterone

Testosterone is one of the most potent anabolic (muscle building) hormones that the body produces.

While you may think that testosterone levels are only important for guys, it turns out that this hormone plays a key role in women as well.

Testosterone promotes muscle growth by stimulating protein synthesis and decreasing protein breakdown. Together this leads to muscle hypertrophy.

Women do not have as much circulating testosterone as men, however, testosterone is an important mediator of muscle mass in both men and women.

And increases in testosterone can be brought on by resistance exercise

Studies have shown, however, that not all types of exercise lead to the same increased testosterone levels in women that are seen in men.

To see this rise in testosterone, women should engage in exercises that are high volume and increase metabolic demand.

For example, one study from “Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise” found that a low-volume, single-set circuit produced only a slight increase in resting testosterone after 12 weeks.

However, resting testosterone returned to baseline at 24 weeks of training.

In contrast, a periodized high-volume, multiple-set program produced a large increase in resting testosterone at 12 weeks and an even larger increase at 24 weeks of training.

Thus, the type of exercise chosen can significantly affect the degree of increase in testosterone levels.

Another thing to be aware of is that testosterone levels decrease rapidly following menopause. This is similar to how testosterone levels fall in aging men.

This is one of the reasons why muscle mass decreases even more after menopause in women.

This makes exercise even more important as women age.

By stimulating an increase in testosterone levels you can help decrease further lean muscle loss while also increasing muscle growth.

Estrogen

Estrogen also has a major impact on building muscle mass in women.

While estrogen doesn’t have the same muscle-building effects as testosterone, it does play a role in muscle growth and building muscle mass.

Studies have shown that estrogen can increase the signaling power of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1).

This hormone is a major player in muscle synthesis, and its activation enhances muscle growth.

Estrogen is also important for recovery after workouts.

Estrogen can function as an antioxidant in the membrane of muscle cells and helps to decrease damage and inflammation after a tough workout.

In addition, estrogen helps speed up the repair of muscle fibers after exercise, which enhances overall body recovery.

The role of estrogen in muscle recovery is further backed up by medical research.

One study from the Journal of Applied Physiology found that women using hormone therapy experienced less muscle damage after exercise compared to women not being treated with hormone replacement.

This further indicates that there is a protective effect of estrogen against exercise-induced skeletal muscle damage.

Cortisol

Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is produced by the body in response to stress.

This includes both mental and physical stress.

When cortisol levels increase, it stimulates adrenaline, or your “fight or flight” system.

This then leads to an increase in blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar as your body prepares to “fight” or ward off danger.

This is why chronic stress and cortisol elevation can cause long-standing health issues, weight gain, and hormonal imbalances.

Since exercise will also trigger cortisol release, it is important to balance high-intensity workouts with recovery days.

If you are constantly working out at high intensities, your cortisol levels will remain elevated and will continue to trigger the above responses.

Reducing your exercise intensity helps the body to recover, which in turn will lower cortisol levels, and help your body return to a normal hormonal balance.

Thyroid Hormones

The thyroid gland is responsible for secreting the thyroid hormones T3 and T4 in response to thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), which is produced by the pituitary gland.

These hormones act through a number of mechanisms to regulate metabolism and growth.

An underactive thyroid gland can lead to a lower metabolic rate and weight gain.

There are several ways thyroid hormones are stimulated, including exercise.

Research has shown that high levels of aerobic exercise increase the level of circulating thyroid hormones.

This can play a role in enhancing your metabolism and improving thyroid balance.

Human growth hormone (HGH)

Human growth hormone contributes to muscle and bone strength, and also increases fat metabolism.

While your body naturally releases HGH, this can be stimulated more by exercise.

Studies have found that the best types of workouts to boost HGH levels are more intense workouts such as high-intensity intervals, plyometrics, and heavy resistance training.

The increase in HGH seen with exercise can also lead to increased muscle mass and decreased fat mass.

This is especially important as women age and see a drop in lean muscle.

Appetite Regulating Hormones

Hormones play a pivotal role in regulating our appetite.

Since healthy eating habits are key to leading a healthy lifestyle, understanding how exercise impacts your appetite goes a long way towards helping you reach your fitness goals.

Hormones secreted by the gastrointestinal tract work as regulators of appetite and food intake by influencing feelings of hunger and satiety

Ghrelin

At rest, ghrelin stimulates food intake.

Evidence suggests that levels of ghrelin are decreased after strenuous endurance exercise, leading to lower appetite and decreased energy consumption.

Glucagon-Like Peptide 1 (GLP1)

GLP-1 aids in the regulation of blood sugars by impacting gastric emptying, insulin secretion, and control of food intake.

In fact, GLP-1 agonists are used to treat patients with diabetes because of the impact this hormone has on glucose control.

Research has found that bouts of exercise can increase circulating levels of GLP-1.

The combination of decreased levels of ghrelin with increased levels of GLP-1 explains how exercise can decrease hunger following a workout.

Insulin

Insulin is another hormone influenced by exercise that plays a key role in appetite regulation and energy storage.

This hormone is normally produced in the pancreas in response to elevated glucose levels in the blood.

Insulin allows glucose to enter cells, which is important for cell growth and energy production.

However, insulin resistance, like that seen with Type 2 diabetes, leads to overproduction in insulin and dysregulation in hormone balance and overall health.

Since insulin balance and blood sugar regulation are closely linked, maintaining a healthy insulin balance is important for metabolism.

High-intensity interval training has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity.

In addition, regular exercise has been found to decrease insulin levels.

In one study from the International Journal of Obesity, plasma levels of insulin were lower in individuals who exercised for a minimum of 150 min a week for at least two years, compared with inactive individuals.

A proper balance of 1-2 high-intensity aerobic workouts a week combined with lower intensity exercises and recovery is a good way to improve insulin sensitivity long term while avoiding overtraining.

Exercise and Hormone Balance

When women think about exercise and hormones, it's natural that the first thing that comes to mind is estrogen.

However, there is a myriad of hormones that are affected by bouts of activity.

Together, these all act to influence muscle growth, aerobic endurance, appetite, and overall health.

Hormone levels fluctuate not only as we age, but also on a daily basis.

Exercise can impact these levels in both positive and negative ways.

Finding the right balance is key to getting the most out of your workouts and fitness routines.

By incorporating regular exercise combined with proper recovery, you can keep your hormones regulated in a way that will work for you and the healthy lifestyle that you are working towards as a fit mother.

Holly Smith
Holly Smith

Writer, The Fit Father Project & Fit Mother Project

Holly is an osteopathic physician, runner, triathlete, and fitness and nutrition enthusiast.

She is board certified in nephrology and internal medicine, has a bachelors degree in dietetics and is a certified personal trainer with NASM-PES certification.

Holly has completed four full ironmans, twelve marathons, countless half ironmans, olympic distance triathlons, half marathons and numerous other road races.

Holly joined the Fit Father Project in May 2019 as a regular writer, contributing articles on health, wellness, exercise, and nutrition.

She has also recently qualified for the 2020 World Championships for Ironman 70.3, in New Zealand!

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