Your Guide to Exercising with a Thyroid or Adrenal Condition
Average Read Time: 5 minutes
The benefits of exercise are well known: it reduces stress and anxiety, increases bone density, improves blood sugar control, protects against heart disease, releases endorphins to make us feel amazing and, of course, burns calories to help fight weight gain.
But what many people don’t know is that too much exercise can actually be harmful. Exercising too frequently, too intensely, or for too long can push the body’s stress response past its limits, leading to a cascade of biochemical reactions that can seriously damage your health – especially if you are already dealing with a thyroid condition or adrenal fatigue.
In fact, when you have a thyroid or adrenal condition, the whole subject of exercise becomes very confusing. How are you supposed to exercise when fatigue is your constant companion and your motivation is in the tank? Even if you can muster up the energy to get moving, how do you prevent yourself from overdoing it, and then suffering a massive crash from which it takes days (or weeks) to recover?
In this article, we’ll clear up all your questions about how to exercise when you suffer from a thyroid or adrenal disorder. We’ll also provide guidance as to the best place to start if, right now, the mere thought of walking up a flight of stairs seems like climbing Everest.
If you have been bedridden or confined to the armchair for long periods of time, start by simply moving around more.
Set a timer on your phone to get up once every hour and do something for a minute or two to move your body. You could walk around the house, go up and down a flight of stairs or put on a load of washing. Anything that gets you moving is great.
When you start to feel stronger and more energetic, get up more frequently, or move around for a bit longer. Each little bit counts!
If you’re able to get around the house without too much restriction, you can start to include more structured activities that move the body without adding extra stress.
Some of my favorites are tai chi and yoga. These activities help stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (your body’s rest and digest mode), reduce cortisol, and promote overall health and wellbeing. Try and include these types of exercise in your schedule at least a couple of times a week, even when you are well on the way to recovery. This will help prevent burnout.
Focus on gentle forms of yoga, such as Yin and restorative. More intense forms of yoga, like Bikram and Ashtanga, are too stressful on the body in the early stages of recovery.
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As a next step, start to incorporate strength training into your exercise program. Strength training helps to build muscle, boost metabolism and burn fat. It also improves bone density and hormonal health.
Strength training doesn’t mean you have to lift heavy weights, although you can progress to this later. Start by lifting light to moderate weights, or engaging in other forms of resistance exercise (e.g. using a suspension trainer like a TRX, or your own body weight).
Choose exercises that will work all major muscle groups in the body. If something hurts, you may need to modify the exercise. For example, a push up can be done on your knees or even against a wall. Don’t ever push through pain. If something isn’t working for you, find another exercise that doesn’t hurt. If you’re struggling on your own, it might be helpful to invest in a personal trainer who can show you the ropes and make specific recommendations.
Remember, start slow. As you progress, increase the number of reps and sets and add more weight. The body adapts very quickly and in as little as two weeks, you may need a different routine. It’s a great sign that you are getting stronger!
HIIT (high-intensity interval training) is very popular at the moment because it’s such a time-efficient way of improving overall health and burning fat. It’s also great for reducing stubborn fat deposits in problem areas such as the stomach and thighs!
HIIT involves exercising for periods of a higher intensity alternated with periods of slower exercise or recovery, for a set number of rounds (e.g. 1 minute of hard work followed by 2 minutes of rest for 5 rounds).
If you are suffering from a thyroid or adrenal condition, very intense forms of HIIT will probably be too much for you in the early stages. However, just about everyone can reap the benefits of interval training in one form or another. Just remember to start slow and work up.
Sample HIIT Beginner Program
This program is ideal for beginners or for those in the early stages of recovery. Starting slow will help build the foundation for your fitness and boost your confidence along the way.
- Warm-up by walking lightly for 5 minutes.
- Increase your walking speed to a moderate intensity for 2 1/2 minutes.
- Return to your baseline speed for 2 1/2 minutes.
- Repeat 4-5 rounds and perform 1-2 times per week.
Sample Intermediate/Advanced HIIT Program
Advanced individuals, or those further along in their recovery, can try this more challenging routine.
Warm up for 5 minutes at a brisk walk or slow jog.
- Increase speed to a moderate intensity sprint (around 50%) for 1 minute.
- Return to baseline speed for 1 minute.
- Increase speed for 1 minute to a sprint of slightly higher intensity than the first interval.
- Complete 5 rounds, increasing the intensity with each interval.
As you progress, increase the number of rounds you complete each session by one each time, to a maximum of 10 rounds.
Include HIIT sessions in your exercise program 1-2 times per week on nonconsecutive days.
Moderate, Low-Impact Aerobic Exercise
There are additional health benefits to be gained from engaging in regular aerobic activity as well as interval training, so I recommend including both in your exercise regimen.
Aerobic exercise increases your fitness and endurance levels, which translates to increased real-life ability to participate in activities you love (e.g. going on long hikes or bike rides, or simply playing with the kids).
Choose low-impact aerobic exercise to take the pressure off your joints, which can be painful if you have a thyroid condition.
A stationary or recumbent exercise bike or elliptical are good machine choices for low impact aerobic activity. Walking is also fantastic!
Aim to be slightly out of breath but still easily able to talk. Try and include 30 minutes of moderate aerobic activity in your exercise program at least 3 times a week.
How to Know If You’ve Done Too Much
Listen to your body. If you are doing too much, it will tell you.
If you find yourself unable to complete your workouts, or notice that your performance during workouts is declining, then you are pushing yourself too hard.
You should feel great and energized again 30 minutes after you workout. If you are still exhausted or need a nap, you’ve done too much.
Your best guide will be how you feel the next day. If you feel energetic and balanced, with the same or slightly more energy than the day before, then you are probably on track. However, if you feel drained and exhausted, you’ve overdone it. This means you will need to reduce the length and intensity of your next workout and increase recovery time.
If you have started a new exercise routine and notice that your thyroid/adrenal symptoms are getting worse (e.g. irritability, sleeplessness, energy crashes, digestive issues, menstrual irregularities, or sudden changes in weight), then it is likely you are pushing your body beyond its limits. Be compassionate with yourself and dial things back. It’s fine to take a couple of steps back so you can take large leaps forward.
Track Your Progress and Celebrate Your Wins
Get yourself an old-fashioned journal or notebook and track how much you’re moving each day. Or you can use our handy dandy exercise tracker.
As you record your exercise for the day, also record how you are feeling by noting energy levels and any thyroid/adrenal symptoms. This way, you can easily see if you’ve done too much and can adjust your program accordingly.
By tracking your progress, you can start seeing the small changes that you might miss if you weren’t writing them down. When you start seeing improvements, you will be more motivated.
Remember, you’re after progress, not perfection. Don’t forget to congratulate yourself for the small wins. You deserve it!