Weight loss is about much more than how you look — reaching and maintaining a healthy weight can help you manage ongoing health problems, such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). For women with this condition, a PCOS workout can mean better regulation of their blood sugar.
That's good news because although the causes of PCOS aren't fully understood, doctors agree that keeping insulin levels in check through exercise and a healthy diet will prevent PCOS from leading to other conditions. A PCOS gym routine and diet don't need to be anything fancy or complicated. The same methods recommended to the general public for weight loss will suffice, although it will take a little effort.
What Is PCOS?
PCOS is categorized by the Mayo Clinic as a hormonal disorder. It affects women of reproductive age and manifests itself through irregular menstrual periods, which might be either infrequent (fewer than nine times a year, for example, or occurring less frequently than every 35 days) or abnormally long or heavy.
Women with PCOS might also have elevated amounts of the hormone androgen, which could manifest as excess facial or body hair, severe acne and male-pattern baldness. In some cases, a person's ovaries won't function properly because they are enlarged and have follicles (collections of fluid) surrounding the eggs.
Although the exact cause of PCOS is unknown, this disorder typically occurs around the time of a woman's first period. In other cases, it could develop later in life, sometimes following substantial weight gain.
There's currently no known cure, but the Mayo Clinic points out that early diagnosis, early treatment and weight loss may help women with PCOS manage their symptoms and reduce the risk of further complications like Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
How Body Weight Affects PCOS
Johns Hopkins Medicine explains that researchers don't fully understand the relationship between obesity and PCOS, but weight loss may help improve the condition. Unfortunately, sufferers often have a harder time losing weight — although the reason behind this is unknown.
A September 2017 review published in Nutrients examined weight management in women with PCOS and those without this condition, concluding that there's not enough evidence to support the idea that sufferers have a harder time losing weight. Researchers further explained that until further studies can show one type of weight-loss method as being particularly effective for anaging PCOS treatment, sufferers should aim to follow the same weight-loss advice as everyone else.
But PCOS and weight gain might be a vicious cycle. Since PCOS may cause insulin resistance and hence contribute to obesity, it makes people more susceptible to weight gain, explains the Cleveland Clinic. Worse still, they will see more PCOS symptoms as they gain weight.
This is backed by a March 2019 study published in Metabolism, which highlights that obesity notably exacerbates the health problems associated with PCOS. Losing even a small amount of weight — about 5 to 10 percent of your body weight — may improve its symptoms.
That doesn't mean that weight loss is the cure for PCOS. This is a widespread myth, notes Penn Medicine. There is no way to cure PCOS, but only strategies to manage the condition. Healthy eating and regular exercise are the best way to do this, because they help your body regulate insulin use and, in turn, balance your hormones.
And no, Penn Medicine adds, PCOS is not a condition that affects only overweight and obese women. This misconception comes from the fact that poor insulin regulation is associated with both PCOS and obesity, and a healthy lifestyle can help control both — but that doesn't mean that women of normal weight can't get PCOS.
Read more: How to Lose Weight With PCOS
Creating a PCOS Workout
The Mayo Clinic notes that exercise is an important part of weight loss, encouraging people to aim to lose about 1 1/2 pounds a week via a daily caloric deficit of 500 to 750 calories. Physical activity helps your body burn more calories, which allows you to create a greater deficit than through diet alone. Furthermore, exercise can help prevent the loss of muscle mass and bone density that may result from weight loss through diet alone, especially in older individuals.
People creating their PCOS workout should aim for the same amount of activity recommended for all individuals: at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity, per week. Additionally, they should be doing two weekly sessions of strength training that targets all major muscle groups, using weight or resistance heavy enough to exhaust them after 12 to 15 reps.
Doing the math, you see that you need only 30 minutes of moderate aerobic activity, five days a week, to enjoy positive effects on your health. But as the Mayo Clinic explains, more exercise can also offer greater benefits. If you're looking to create a calorie deficit to lose weight, you might need to work out more.
Per the Mayo Clinic's advice, a 160-pound individual could burn more than 400 calories by doing an hour of water aerobics (402 calories), hiking (438 calories), jogging (606 calories) or swimming laps at a light or moderate pace (423 calories). To achieve a 500- to 750-calorie deficit overall, you would then need to cut about 100 to 350 calories from your diet.
HIIT Makes an Efficient Workout
Women with PCOS might want to consider high-intensity interval training (HIIT). In a September 2015 study published by PLOS One, a small group of 31 overweight women with PCOS engaged in cardiovascular training, strength training or HIIT three times a week for 10 weeks.
Those who did HIIT had better insulin resistance, even if they didn't lose weight, indicating that exercise might be more important than weight management when it comes to improving PCOS symptoms.
HIIT is a popular workout option for many people because it yields significant results without being time-consuming. The American Council on Exercise (ACE) explains that high-intensity workouts cause your body to burn calories and tap into its fat stores hours after exercise.
ACE offers a few ideas on developing your own HIIT workout, such as a starter program using the aerobic exercise of your choice (they recommend a stationary bike, but you could also go running or swimming). You'll do a five-minute warmup followed by interval periods of speed and recovery before cooling down.
Another option is our 20-minute HIIT workout involving calisthenics like jumping jacks, bodyweight squats and push-ups, which you can do anytime, anywhere. Give it a try and add new exercises to the mix as you progress.
Cut Back on Simple Carbs
Although women with PCOS need cardio fuel — that is, plenty of energy from food — bear in mind that low-fat, high-carb diets aren't the best option for those trying to keep their insulin levels in check.
Instead, talk to a doctor or a dietitian about a low-carb diet that could work for you. When possible, opt for complex carbohydrates, which digest slower and are less likely to cause blood sugar spikes.
A review published in March 2016 in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition and funded by the Diabetes Task Force and ILSI Europe Metabolic Syndrome looked at the way certain nutrients affected blood sugar regulation. As it turns out, soluble fiber and monounsaturated fats are best for slowing digestion and offering steady energy throughout the day.
Therefore, an ideal PCOS gym routine and eating plan may entail about 30 to 60 minutes of moderate cardiovascular activity a day (with two rest days a week) and resistance training every other day. HIIT is a good option too, especially for those with a busy lifestyle. Couple that with a calorie-restricted diet, with an emphasis on complex, fiber-rich carbohydrates, monounsaturated fats and limited added sugar.
- Mayo Clinic: “Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)”
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: “PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome)”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Can PCOS Cause Weight Gain?”
- Penn Medicine: “5 Myths About Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)”
- Nutrients: “Weight Management Interventions in Women With and Without PCOS: A Systematic Review”
- Metabolism: “Characteristics of Obesity in Polycystic Ovary Syndrome”
- Mayo Clinic: “Exercise for Weight Loss: Calories Burned in 1 Hour”
- Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition: “Impact of Diet Composition on Blood Glucose Regulation”
- PLOS One: “Effects of High Intensity Interval Training and Strength Training on Metabolic, Cardiovascular and Hormonal Outcomes in Women With Polycystic Ovary Syndrome: A Pilot Study”
- American Council on Exercise: “8 Reasons HIIT Workouts Are So Effective”
- American Council on Exercise: “High-Intensity Interval Training”