Losing weight is hard enough — but it’s often more difficult if you have polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). The research underscores the importance of physical activity for PCOS — yet, some women turn to compulsive exercise habits to shed pounds.
Chronic cardio is one avenue women take to control their PCOS symptoms. However, it could just derail your weight loss goals altogether. Here’s why chronic cardio may not be the best option for losing weight with PCOS and alternative workouts for you to try instead.
Table of Contents
Understanding PCOS and Weight Loss Challenges
Nearly 38% to 88% of women with PCOS are overweight or obese — 50% to 90% are insulin resistant. While any weight loss — even modest amounts — are beneficial for symptom relief, PCOS patients face real challenges in reaching and maintaining their weight loss goals.
Those with PCOS may have cycles longer than 35 days or under 21 days, hirsutism or hair thinning, moodiness, infertility and higher blood sugar. However, most would agree weight gain is especially prevalent.
You might hit the gym every evening or restrict your calorie intake to no avail. Yet, some people gain more weight despite their efforts to lose excess pounds. This is because insulin resistance makes it more difficult for the body to convert sugars into energy, resulting in excess fat.
Additionally, PCOS is marked by higher androgen levels, leading to metabolic abnormalities, including a higher risk of type 2 diabetes, gluten intolerance and cardiovascular disease.
There is still much to learn about PCOS and its effects on the body, including causes and viable treatments. Fortunately, we already know what physical activities work better than others for weight management with a hormonal imbalance.
Chronic Cardio Effects on Weight Loss
Chronic cardio — a prolonged, recurring cardiovascular activity exceeding your maximum heart rate — isn’t as effective for weight loss or achieving optimal health in the ever-evolving fitness landscape.
For example, an hour-long spin class feels good — a vigorous aerobic routine where you expend a burst of stamina. However, participating in high-intensity exercises several times a week isn’t the same as occasionally doing them. Likewise, training for a marathon four or five days weekly, beating your record with each run, is exhilarating but could cause a more troublesome hormonal imbalance.
Excess activity stresses the body, causing it to produce more cortisol. At the same time, the adrenal glands create additional androgens, which disrupt menstrual cycles and induce weight gain in women with PCOS.
Common Exercise Mistakes With PCOS
PCOS patients go to great lengths to lose weight, often making significant mistakes along the way. Depending on individual hormone levels, what works well for one person may not work for you. Pushing your body too hard — especially when you begin seeing positive results — is also counterproductive.
Compulsive cardio may also result in lactic acid buildup — you might recognize this as “the burn” during intense exercises and muscle soreness afterward. Unfortunately, lactate is an inflammatory response — also a common symptom of PCOS.
One study even suggests uterine inflammation in women with PCOS results in pregnancy complications, including miscarriage.
Alternative Workouts for Reaching PCOS Weight Loss Goals
It’s not that cardio isn’t healthy for women with PCOS — one recent study shows a 30% reduced mortality risk in those who completed 30 hours of intense exercise over 10–12 weeks. However, chronic cardio alone may not help those with hormonal imbalances.
Instead, women with PCOS should alternate between cardio, strength training and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) to see a difference on the scale. HIIT is spurts of vigorous exercise with low-intensity recovery periods to improve your metabolic rate, oxygenize the muscles and burn fat.
Walking and biking are excellent examples of steady-state cardio exercises under the maximum heart rate. Yoga is also beneficial for recovery and reduces cortisol production. In one study, women with PCOS who practiced yoga for 40 minutes daily for 12 weeks showed significant improvements in cardiovascular risks, depression and thyroid-related hormone production.
Optimizing Diet for Weight Loss With PCOS
Exercise is essential — however, managing insulin resistance with a healthy, low-sugar diet is the best way to lose weight with PCOS. Certain foods — such as cinnamon — boost insulin sensitivity by transferring sugar from the bloodstream to cells.
Filling your plate with lean protein, healthy fats and fiber also makes for a well-rounded, PCOS-friendly diet. Fiber slows digestion and absorption of carbohydrates to prevent a rapid increase in blood sugar. Likewise, lean poultry and seafood have similar stabilizing effects.
Even if you do not have diabetes, checking your blood sugar levels can keep you on track with healthier eating. Typical targets are 80–130 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) before a meal and under 180 mg/dL two hours following.
To meet the challenges of PCOS and weight loss, consult with your doctors — particularly an endocrine specialist. They can provide practical insight into the best foods for PCOS. Similarly, a nutritionist can educate you about insulin resistance and develop a meal plan to help those struggling with PCOS.
You might also find it helpful to search for online resources, forums and support groups to connect with other women with PCOS as you begin your weight loss journey.
Take a Personalized Approach to Weight Loss With PCOS
Explore different exercise routines and dietary modifications to determine what works best. One person with PCOS might benefit from strength training and gluten-free restrictions, while you may require a different approach. Of course, you can always seek professional guidance and support from the PCOS community if you need help reaching your weight loss goals.