Physical activity is vital to a healthy lifestyle, but exercising with a thyroid problem isn't always easy. Whether you suffer from an overactive or underactive thyroid, talk to your doctor about how to exercise safely. Once you get the all-clear, you may need to make some modifications.
Thyroid Problems and Weight
Both hyper- and hypothyroidism can have an effect on a person's weight, according to the American Thyroid Association (ATA). The thyroid hormone regulates metabolism in humans.
If a person has an underactive thyroid, a condition known as hypothyroidism, they are more likely to have a lower basal metabolic rate (BMR) and, therefore, the potential for a higher body weight. Someone with an overactive thyroid, or hyperthyroidism, is more likely to have a high BMR and the potential for a lower body weight.
However, the relationship between thyroid problems is complex. A person with severe hypothyroidism is more at risk of experience weight gain, says ATA, but it's not always because of extra fat mass — it's often due to salt and water accumulation. Additionally, a person with hyperthyroidism doesn't always lose weight. The condition can also cause an increased appetite, which can lead to eating extra calories — and that can cause weight gain.
Exercise can help with managing weight gain, whether you have hypo- or hyperthyroidism. However, even if your thyroid problem causes you to lose weight, it's still a good idea to exercise because it's good for your body overall. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, exercise doesn't just help control your weight, but it can also reduce your risk of heart disease, help your body manage blood sugar, strengthen your bones and muscles and improve your mental health.
Exercise and Hyperthyroidism
People with hyperthyroidism, also known as Graves' disease, should talk to their doctor before exercising. According to endocrinologist Christian Nasr, MD, on the Cleveland Clinic's website, excessive exercise can be dangerous for someone with severe hyperthyroidism — it can cause heart failure if their thyroid hormones are not under control.
Additionally, keep in mind that when you have hyperthyroidism, you might feel out of breath more quickly or sweat more. Your heart rate may rise faster, too, according to the British Thyroid Foundation.
That said, when you have the all-clear from your doctor, you should do moderate exercise. This includes both cardio and strength-training activities.
The Mayo Clinic recommends weight-bearing exercise for people with Graves' disease because it helps maintain bone density. Weight-bearing exercises are those that force your body to work against gravity, such as walking, jogging, hiking, playing tennis and dancing, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Lifting weights can also help strengthen your bones.
Read more: Foods to Avoid with an Overactive Thyroid
Exercise and Hypothyroidism
Just like for those who have Graves' diseases, Nasr recommends making sure your hypothyroidism, also known as Hashimoto's disease or Hashimoto's thyroiditis, is well-controlled before you start a regular exercise routine. Your heart rate is slower when you have an underactive thyroid, so it can be a jolt if you suddenly start exercising, the Cleveland Clinic states.
Once you've been OK'd to start exercising, you might have an issue with hypothyroidism and exercise intolerance. The symptoms of the condition — which include fatigue, aches and pains and depression, according to Harvard Health Publishing — could leave you feeling less than enthusiastic to start an exercise routine.
The British Thyroid Foundation recommends pacing yourself rather than starting off too hard. You can pick a manageable goal, such as walking for up to 30 minutes per day, rather than trying to do exercise that could lead you to burn out quickly. You'll likely be thankful if you do start to do a little bit of exercise, however, even if you have hypothyroidism and exercise fatigue.
A small study published in July 2018 in the Archives of Endocrinology and Metabolism found that women with hypothyroidism reported a better quality of life after 16 weeks of aerobic exercise training. Aerobic exercise refers to activities that repeatedly move large muscles in your arms, legs and hip, which causes your heart rate to increase and your breath to quicken, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Creating a Workout Plan
If the doctor has given you the all-clear to exercise, start by making a plan. The Mayo Clinic suggests starting by assessing your fitness level. To do this, take your pulse before and immediately after walking 1 mile, timing how long it takes you to walk 1 mile or run 1.5 miles, seeing how many push-ups — standard or modified — you can do at one time and checking how far you can reach forward while seated on the floor with your legs in front of you.
Next, consider your fitness goals — do you want to lose weight, or are you just trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle? Once you've figured that out, create a routine that incorporates the Department of Health and Human Services' (DHHS) physical activity recommendations: At least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week — that's 30 minutes a day — and two or more days of muscle-strengthening activities for all major muscle groups.
There are plenty of physical activities from which to choose, so be creative. While you can do traditional workouts such as walking or running, bicycling, body weight or dumbbell training or the elliptical machine, you can mix it up, too. Get moving with activities such as dancing with your kids or playing tennis with friends — changing it up beats boredom. Alternating activities also reduces the likelihood of injuring or overusing one specific muscle or joint, the Mayo Clinic says.
When you finally get started exercising, begin slowly. You'll have time to improve your fitness level, but it's important to give yourself time to get used to the workout plan. Allow yourself time to both warm up and cool down for every workout. Although the goal is at least 30 minutes a day, it doesn't have to be all at one time, the Mayo Clinic suggests. Exercise for five to 10 minutes to start with, and work your way up to the recommended amount of physical activity.
Is This an Emergency?
- Cleveland Clinic: "Is Your Thyroid Uncontrolled? What You Need to Know About Exercise and Diet Risks"
- British Thyroid Foundation: "Coping With Exercise"
- American Thyroid Association: "Thyroid and Weight"
- Archives of Endocrinology and Metabolism: "Exercise Training Improves Quality of Life in Women With Subclinical Hypothyroidism: A Randomized Clinical Trial"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Benefits of Exercise"
- Mayo Clinic: "Hyperthyroidism (Overactive Thyroid)"
- National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases: "Exercises for Your Bone Health"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "The Lowdown on Thyroid Slowdown"
- Mayo Clinic: "Aerobic Exercise: Top 10 Reasons to Get Physical"
- Department of Health and Human Services: "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans"
- Mayo Clinic: "Fitness Program: 5 Steps to Get Started"