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Exercising For Healthy Thyroid Function - What You Need To Know

Laura Tennant
7 minutes
Published:
Updated:
November 5, 2020
November 18, 2020

As anyone with a thyroid condition knows, the symptoms can make it much harder for you to exercise. Yet exercise is one of the things that can help with many of the common symptoms of hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism. So what is the best way to approach exercise if you have a thyroid condition?

People with thyroid problems can benefit from exercise, though it cannot treat the underlying problem. Incorporating exercise into your routine can help reduce thyroid symptoms like mood problems, trouble sleeping, and weight gain. Combined with the treatment your doctor recommends, regular exercise can help you live well with a thyroid condition.  

You can consider incorporating gentle exercise like yoga at first, working your way up to the adult recommended 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week. 


What are thyroid problems?

The thyroid is a small gland that secretes hormones related to metabolism. Thyroid hormones play a part in regulating many crucial body functions like heart rate, body temperature, and energy stores. When the thyroid is not working properly, people experience symptoms related to these systems. 

There are two main forms of thyroid problems:


1. Hypothyroidism, also known as an underactive thyroid, where your thyroid gland does not secrete enough thyroid hormones. 

Symptoms of hypothyroidism

  • Weight gain
  • Fatigue
  • Hair loss
  • Constipation
  • Dry skin


2. Hyperthyroidism, also known as an overactive thyroid, where your thyroid gland secretes too much of the thyroid hormones. The two conditions have essentially opposite symptoms.

Symptoms of hyperthyroidism 

  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Weight loss
  • Excessive perspiration
  • Frequent bowel movements
  • Rapid heart rate


Thyroid problems can be autoimmune in nature, which means they stem from the body mistakenly attacking the thyroid with the immune system. Hashimoto’s disease is a form of hypothyroidism resulting from an autoimmune disorder. Grave’s disease is another autoimmune disorder that can cause hyperthyroidism. 

People who have family members with thyroid problems may be at an increased risk for developing thyroid problems themselves.

Thyroid problems are frequently undiagnosed, with up to 60% of people being unaware of their condition. People who are concerned they may have symptoms of a thyroid disorder should speak to their doctors, who may recommend they take a test to assess their thyroid function. 

Can exercise help with thyroid problems?

Exercise can help with many of the symptoms of thyroid problems, but it cannot cure the root cause. Regular exercise has many benefits, whether you have a thyroid condition or not. It can improve your cardiovascular fitness, your strength and muscle mass, your mood, and help you achieve a healthy weight. 

Many of the most common symptoms of thyroid problems can be improved with exercise. With hypothyroidism, people may experience weight gain, depression, and low energy. With hyperthyroidism, people may experience anxiety, tiredness, and trouble sleeping. Exercise can positively impact many of these symptoms. 


Do thyroid problems make it harder to exercise?

Frustratingly, thyroid problems can make it harder to exercise. Both hypo- and hyperthyroidism are associated with exercise intolerance when untreated, because they cause the body to have an abnormal response to exercise. Therefore, it is a good idea to treat a thyroid condition before embarking on a new exercise regime. Medications can relieve many of the symptoms, making it easier to tolerate exercise.

Some studies indicate that people with mild thyroid conditions may continue to have trouble with exercise, even when they are treated. A 2005 study found that people with subclinical hypothyroidism (normal, but slightly underactive thyroid) had an abnormal response to exercise compared to controls with normal thyroid function. 

When these patients were treated for 6 months, and then tested again, the abnormal response persisted, though symptoms were reduced. This may explain why people with thyroid conditions can find it hard to exercise.  


Can exercise stimulate the thyroid?

One key question is whether exercise can stimulate or otherwise impact thyroid hormones. For example, can exercise impact TSH levels? 

Human and animal studies have found that one-time exercise, but not regular exercise can affect the levels of thyroid hormones directly after exercise. However, when a person exercises regularly, their body adapts and does not produce different levels of thyroid hormones. 


What kinds of exercises are best for thyroid problems?

People with a thyroid condition may have some trouble exercising. Both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism affect the body’s ability to regulate mood, energy, heart rate, and temperature, all of which can make it harder to exercise. 

If you have a thyroid condition, and are looking to start exercising, it is important to make sure your medication is working well for you first.

Cardiovascular exercise is a key part of overall health, and it is a good idea to incorporate cardio into your exercise routine. The CDC recommends 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of intense exercise per week. You’ll want to aim for 30 minutes, 5 days a week, but you can start with less and work your way up.

Strength training is another important component of an exercise routine. This can involve lifting weights, or using bodyweight exercises (like pull-ups and push-ups). Practices like yoga and pilates involve some strength training too. As with any exercise, start with a small amount of gentle training, and work your way up. Try to train all of the major muscle groups (pull, push, and legs). It could be worth consulting a personal trainer, and working together to create a workout plan. 


Beginner exercises

These low-impact, gentle exercises are all good places to start when you have a thyroid condition:


Yoga 

  • Beginner, gentle, and yin yoga are good places to start
  • Some yoga studios or videos may offer practices designed for thyroid care
  • Yoga offers cardio, strength, flexibility, and balance benefits

Walking

  • Walking is a great low-impact exercise you can do almost anywhere
  • You can start with walks around the neighbourhood, walking instead of driving to errands, or even walking inside a mall if the weather is bad
  • You can gain endurance by walking for longer periods of time

Elliptical or exercise bike

  • Both the elliptical and exercise bike offer a low-impact cardio workout that is more intense than walking
  • Monitor your heart rate while exercising, and aim for a low-intensity workout at first, working your way up to higher heart rates as you feel comfortable

Resistance bands 

  • Resistance bands offer a gentle way to build strength without lifting weights
  • You can use resistance bands to perform many exercises, like rowing, lat pull-downs, and leg exercises
  • They come in a variety of levels of resistance. You can try starting with a lower resistance and working your way up

Tai Chi 

  • Tai Chi is an ancient practice originating in China as a martial art
  • It involves a series of slow, meditative exercises 
  • Although it is low-impact, it can offer strength, cardio, flexibility, and balance benefits

Intermediate and advanced exercises

Once you are comfortable with the beginner exercises, here are some you can try to up the intensity a little. If you find any of these exercises bother your joints, look into low-impact workarounds or speak to a personal trainer, who can help tailor your routine:


Running and cycling

  • Running or jogging can be a great cardio workout, but it can be hard on the knees, so make sure to listen to your body and ensure you have the right footwear.
  • Cycling offers a lower-impact option for an outdoor cardio workout


Advanced yoga

  • Hatha, ashtanga, and hot yoga are good keywords to find a more advanced yoga workout
  • Advanced yoga offers strength, cardio, balance, and flexibility benefits, incorporating bodyweight exercise and endurance into the routine


Pilates 

  • Pilates is an exercise system that uses floor-based exercises to build strength and endurance
  • It is similar to yoga, and it is often a matter of personal preference whether a person prefers pilates or yoga


Weightlifting

  • Weightlifting, using free weights or machines, is a great way to build strength
  • It is a good idea to try to incorporate all of the muscle groups into your workout (pull, push, core, and legs)
  • If any of the exercises you try are uncomfortable, look into alternatives or discuss with a personal trainer


Bodyweight exercises

  • Bodyweight exercise involves using your body’s own weight to build strength
  • Common bodyweight exercises include pull-ups, push-ups, and plank


Summary

While exercise can be a challenge for those suffering with hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism, it can help reduce many of the symptoms, like fatigue, weight gain, anxiety, mood problems, and insomnia. Exercise alone also cannot address the root cause of thyroid conditions. Ensuring your thyroid condition is identified and treated properly may make it easier to maintain a regular exercise routine. 

When beginning a new exercise routine for thyroid conditions, it’s a good idea to start with gentle exercise like yoga or pilates. Over time, you can work up to the recommended amount of exercise, and incorporate strength training. Doing this will help reduce thyroid problem symptoms and contribute to a healthy lifestyle. 

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Laura Tennant
Science & Medicine Writer

Laura Tennant is a freelance medical writer from Toronto. She has an Honours B.Sc. in Neuroscience from the University of Toronto. She loves using her writing to help others make better-informed choices about their health and lifestyle. When she’s not writing, she’s making music and finding reasons to laugh.