Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a medical condition that affects an estimated 8 to 13 percent of women who are of reproductive age.
PCOS can cause:
- high blood cholesterol levels
- sleep apnea
- high blood pressure
- increased risks for pregnancy complications, such as gestational diabetes and pre-eclampsia, which is characterized by high blood pressure and can lead to organ damage
While these don’t happen to every woman with PCOS, there are changes from a lifestyle perspective that can help reduce the likelihood these effects will occur.
This article will focus on some of the changes you can implement today, such as diet and exercise routines. As always, if you have specific questions, talk to your doctor who helps you manage your PCOS.
Women with PCOS experience higher rates of insulin resistance compared to women who don’t have the condition. Insulin resistance affects your body’s ability to use blood sugar for energy.
Doctors have connected a lack of physical activity and excess body weight as potential contributing factors to insulin resistance, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
Not all women with PCOS have overweight. The good news is physical exercise is something you can do for your health when you have PCOS, regardless of your weight.
A meta-analysis of 16 studies related to PCOS and exercise found that vigorous intensity aerobic exercise was the most likely to reduce body mass index (BMI) and insulin resistance in women with PCOS, according to an article in the journal Frontiers in Physiology.
The researchers compared moderate exercise to vigorous exercise. They also found that vigorous exercise and healthy diet interventions resulted in the greatest decreases in BMI.
A research review of lifestyle interventions in PCOS published in the journal Best Practice & Research Clinical Obstetrics & Gynaecology found that exercise helped to reduce weight, abdominal fat, and fasting insulin levels.
The review also found exercise could help women of all weight levels with PCOS either lose or maintain their weight to help them look and feel healthier.
Any type helps
A literature review of studies published in the journal Sports Medicine regarding types of exercises, such as strength training and aerobic activity, did not find one specific exercise type was the most beneficial to women with PCOS.
Some of the studies reviewed aerobic exercise and resistance training, riding a stationary bicycle versus riding a bicycle outside, and treadmill walking or jogging at a moderate intensity versus vigorous intensity. The authors did find there are many exercise types that could benefit women with PCOS.
The message from these and other studies is that exercise can usually help you when you have PCOS, and the best exercise is what you will do regularly. Bonus points if the exercise can be something you enjoy doing.
Here are some exercise types to consider:
- Steady-state cardiovascular workouts: These are workouts that get your heart pumping, usually at about 50 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate, if you are engaging in moderate exercise. You can calculate your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220. Aerobic exercises in this category can include walking, riding a bicycle, dancing, or taking an aerobics class.
- HIIT workouts: High-intensity interval training (HIIT) involves balancing intense exercise bursts with rest intervals. Typical exercises in a HIIT workout include things like burpees, tuck jumps, and mountain climbers. A study published in the journal PLOS ONE found that women with obesity reported greater enjoyment of HIIT exercises compared to those who engaged in continuous moderate to vigorous exercise. Enjoyment of exercise is an important factor for sticking with a routine long-term.
- Interval training: Interval training is a way to exercise at different intensity levels, but not necessarily to the heart rate max you do with HIIT. This training type often involves doing different exercises in the same session to keep your heart rate up.
- Mind-body exercises: Studies show that women with PCOS have an enhanced bodily response to stress and distress, according to an article in the journal Physical Exercise for Human Health. Mind-body exercises like yoga, Pilates, and tai chi can help not only burn calories, but also reduce stress levels that worsen your PCOS symptoms.
- Strength training: Strength training involves using resistance bands, weights, or your own body weight to build muscle. This training type can help you build healthy muscles and bones. Increasing your muscle mass could help you burn more calories at rest, helping you maintain a healthy weight.
These are just some examples of exercises you can do with minimal equipment and space.
Researchers have completed several studies regarding the “best” diet types for those with PCOS to follow. The Androgen Excess and PCOS Society used this research to make recommendations for women, which include:
- If overweight, reduce current calorie intake by 500 to 1,000 calories per day.
- Make total fat less than 30 percent of your total source of calories for the day. Saturated fats, like high-fat beef, butter, cheese, and full-fat dairy products, should represent less than 10 percent of your total calorie intake.
- Switch higher-fat foods for fiber, whole-grain breads and cereals, fruits, and “good” sources of fats, such as nuts and avocados.
- Eat less than 200 milligrams of cholesterol a day.
- Avoid trans fats whenever possible.
- Incorporate an additional 5 to 10 grams of fiber in your diet per day.
If you aren’t sure where to start with incorporating these changes to your diet, talk to your doctor. Your doctor also may recommend seeing a dietitian to create an eating plan specific to women with PCOS.
Exercise to improve your PCOS doesn’t have to take hours a week. Studies have found exercise sessions ranging from 30 minutes a day, three times a week, to three total hours per week improved metabolic and reproductive symptoms associated with PCOS.
The Androgen Excess and PCOS Society recommends getting at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a day and increasing your activity effort when you can. Some of the ways you can incorporate exercise in your life include the following:
- Create your own interval training session, where you set up about six stations and exercise at each for about one to two minutes at a time. Examples could include:
- jumping jacks
- bicep curls
- Walk for 30 to 45 minutes a day on a treadmill or outdoors.
- Take an aerobics class online or at a gym. Examples include step, dance, boxing, or spinning.
- Take a HIIT class at a gym or using online resources. YouTube offers many workout videos that you can complete at home. Just ensure the routine is from a reputable provider.
- Practice yoga, Pilates, or tai chi at a studio, gym, or using an online class. If you have not practiced before, you may wish to seek the guidance of a trainer to evaluate your form and safety.
If boredom is a factor in your commitment to an exercise routine, utilize a combination of these exercise types, such as completing a different exercise session type three times a week.
Healthy eating plan
Try to incorporate the following habits for healthy eating with each meal and snack:
- Let each meal consist of a serving of lean proteins, such as skinless chicken, fish, or tofu.
- Cook with healthful fats, such as olive oil.
- Add a vegetable, such as broccoli, kale, spinach, and peppers.
- Incorporate a serving of beans, nuts, or lentils.
- Choose brightly colored fruits, such as red grapes, blueberries, oranges, and cherries.
- Choose whole-grain bread and pasta options.
Using these guidelines, you can often stay within recommended daily calorie requirements given your overall height, health level, and weight.
When you have PCOS, it’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor about the lifestyle changes you can make to improve your health. When it comes to exercise for your PCOS, it’s especially important you talk to your doctor if you have other medical conditions that could affect your ability to exercise. Examples include arthritis or heart-related conditions.
If you have been sedentary for some time or don’t have a solid foundation in exercise safety or proper form, it may be a good idea to consult a personal trainer. Your personal trainer should have a fitness certification from an accredited organization. Examples include:
Your trainer should be experienced and emphasize safety.
Exercise can be an important part of your PCOS management. Not only does it improve your physical health, exercise can help you manage your stress levels.
If you aren’t sure where to start, seeing your doctor and finding a personal trainer can help set you on a safe pathway. Exercising at least three times a week and sticking with it can help you improve symptoms from PCOS.