PCOS: Exercise Dos And Don'ts

Sweat logo

June 29, 2022

PCOS: Exercise Dos And Don'ts - Hero image

Reproductive health and fertility is a huge part of a woman’s wellness experience and can be influenced by many moving parts. Some of these are outside of our control like genetics and environmental factors, while others we CAN have power over, such as our diet, how we manage stress and exercise. 

For people with PCOS, or polycystic ovary syndrome, physical exercise can play a big role in managing the condition and its symptoms. 

What is PCOS? 

According to a 2020 systematic review, polycystic ovary syndrome affects between 8-13% of reproductive-aged women, making it one of the most common endocrine conditions. If you don’t have it yourself, chances are you know someone who does!

Women with PCOS have multiple cysts on their ovaries which can be picked up with a scan, and the condition is characterised by a hormonal imbalance and excess androgens - a group of hormones including testosterone. 

Insulin resistance can also be an issue, which affects how your body uses blood sugar for energy. This means PCOS can have an impact on your reproductive system and your metabolic system. 

Apart from ovarian cysts, common symptoms may include an irregular menstrual cycle, heavy periods, infertility issues, weight gain, acne, thinning hair on your head, and excess hair on the face or body. Without proper management, PCOS can also put you at higher risk of other health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, liver issues and diabetes.

As anyone who has PCOS can attest, living with this condition can be a real struggle, physically and emotionally, but the good news is there are some healthy lifestyle changes you can make to improve it - one of which is exercise.

PCOS: Exercise Dos And Don'ts - Picture Panel 2 - Desktop

Why is exercise important for PCOS?

As a 2020 systematic review has highlighted, for women with PCOS, regular exercise consistently leads to improved clinical outcomes, and evidence suggests lifestyle modifications should be the first line of treatment for those with PCOS. 

These results from several studies indicate regular exercise improves the regularity and frequency of ovulation and menstruation, while reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and improving insulin issues. These can all help improve or restore reproductive function. 

Mental health disorders are also associated with PCOS and regular exercise has been found to help improve your psychological wellbeing, too. 

Although not everyone who has PCOS is overweight (and not everyone with PCOS would benefit from weight loss either), weight gain or difficulty losing weight is also a common symptom. 

Carrying excess weight with PCOS can increase the risk of other health issues such as sleep apnoea, diabetes, heart conditions, and high cholesterol or blood pressure.

Regardless of your weight, research has shown that making exercise a regular part of your routine is going to be beneficial for your metabolic, hormonal and reproductive health, as well as for maintaining a healthy weight.

PCOS: Exercise Dos And Don'ts - Picture Panel 3 - Desktop

How often should you exercise with PCOS?

There’s no magic number of minutes or workouts per week, but the most important thing is consistency and daily movement. Guidelines suggest at least 150 minutes of exercise each week, which means at least 20 minutes per day. 

If you think exercising every day sounds impossible, remember this doesn’t always have to be a strenuous session. Some days you might do home workouts or head to the gym, while other days could be brisk walking, jogging or dancing in your lounge. Woohoo!

Are there good and bad types of exercise for PCOS? 

Again, finding a way to move your body every day should be a top priority, so try to find training styles you enjoy and can stick with long-term (and remember, what you enjoy might change over time, too!). 

Research indicates high-intensity exercise can have the most significant impact on your cardio fitness, body composition and insulin resistance. The results also show that for women with PCOS to achieve positive health outcomes, a minimum of 120 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise is needed each week.

According to 2015 research, 10 weeks of high-intensity interval training improved insulin resistance for women with PCOS, and body composition improved significantly with a combination of HIIT and strength training. What does this tell us? That any exercise is effective for improving PCOS symptoms, with OR without weight loss. 

Cardio, strength training and HIIT all have their unique benefits on our health, so a combination is ideal. Including different training styles can help improve insulin resistance, hormone imbalances, heart and metabolic health, mental wellbeing, body composition, your menstrual cycle and much more.

Many Sweat programs include a mix of all three training styles, such as High Intensity Strength with Kayla, PWR by Kelsey Wells, or FIERCE Zero Equipment by Chontel Duncan. 

PCOS: Exercise Dos And Don'ts - Picture Panel 4 - Desktop

Can you overdo it with exercise?

Absolutely. Remember, PCOS affects your reproductive system and hormones, and too much vigorous exercise might increase your stress hormones like cortisol. Doing too much exercise in general can also lead to a negative energy imbalance, meaning you’re burning far more energy than you’re consuming. 

A slight energy deficit can help if weight loss is a goal, but an extreme deficit isn’t healthy and can negatively impact your hormones or even lead to the absence of your period.

Long story short - a workout a day is plenty, and if you choose to do HIIT or strength training, a few times a week is great to allow your body to recover. 

It’s all about keeping your body moving in a sustainable way. Setting yourself a daily step goal, regular movement reminders or finding a way to work exercise snacks into your routine are also great ideas! If you feel like you’re burning out or your body is fatigued and under a lot of stress, remember to pump the brakes. 

Pelvic pain or period cramps can also be a common symptom of PCOS. Move your body in gentle ways if you’re experiencing pain and see your doctor for advice.

What if you have PCOS but you’re a fitness beginner?

If you don’t have a regular exercise routine, don’t worry! Going from zero to 100 is something none of our trainers would recommend as it can set you up for burnout and increase your risk of injury, so take things slowly if you’re new or returning to exercise.

Start your fitness journey by incorporating daily cardio like brisk walking, jogging or cycling, try bodyweight workouts to reap the benefits of strength training, and then think about progressing to HIIT workouts and adding weights. 

When you join Sweat, you can also select your fitness level and goals in the app and there are plenty of beginner workouts available. You’ve got this!  

Work out anywhere, anytime with Sweat

Ready for your first workout?

If you’re a woman with PCOS, do you have any tips or advice on how you manage your symptoms? Share them with the Sweat Community in the comments! 

Sweat logo

A more empowered you starts with Sweat, and our editorial team is here to bring you the latest fitness tips, trainer recommendations, wellbeing news, nutritional advice, nourishing recipes and free workouts.

* Disclaimer: This blog post is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. The above information should not be used to diagnose, treat, or prevent any disease or medical condition. Please consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet, sleep methods, daily activity, or fitness routine. Sweat assumes no responsibility for any personal injury or damage sustained by any recommendations, opinions, or advice given in this article.


Recommended Stories

We have a feeling you’re going to love Sweat

That's why the first week is on us.