Thyroid + Exercise


I know firsthand how difficult it can be to exercise with a thyroid disorder. I live with Hashimoto’s disease, and have struggled for years to find the right exercise program for my body. This is one of the reasons I designed Autoimmune Strong for myself- to use exercise to heal my thyroid rather than aggravate it. (You can read more about my story here).

You see, Thyroid + Exercise can be a tricky combination. The thyroid gland controls our metabolism, which has a major effect on how exercise impacts the body. Some people struggle with hyperthyroid, which means that their thyroid is overactive. For many of these people, they feel anxious, jittery, and irritable. For these people, traditional exercise has not been possible, as they worry that they will lose too much weight. Others struggle with hypothyroid, which means that their thyroid is underactive. For many of these people, they feel sluggish, exhausted, and exercise seems impossible.

But surprisingly, for both categories of thyroid disorders, exercise can actually help to manage these symptoms. The key is to exercise in the RIGHT way, to prevent pain, injury and symptom flare-ups.

In both the case of hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism, the same important rules and restrictions apply to exercise. Here are my tips for exercising safely and effectively for thyroid safety.

First, remember that exercise is not just for weight management. When we think of exercise, the first thing we think of is weight loss, right? And that is not an incorrect connection- weight management can happen with the use of exercise, especially for people with hypothyroid issues. However, it is important to remember that exercise has many more benefits than just weight management. With the right exercise program, your heart and lungs will be stronger and more effective, you will have better blood flow, getting more oxygen and other essential nutrients to your body. Exercise can help produce “happy hormones” like serotonin and dopamine, which help reduce anxiety, depression and help you manage stress levels. Your bones and muscles get stronger with exercise, and you become more capable of doing physical activity that perhaps eluded you before. And you will sleep better too!!! (And you can read more about my thoughts on weight loss and exercise here)

Next, know that not all exercise is created equal for people with thyroid disorders. In order to get these benefits, us thyroid warriors need to make sure we exercise in the RIGHT way for our bodies. This means that we need to control the amount of effort we use during exercise, because too much intensity will aggravate the thyroid instead of supporting it. If we work too hard, our thyroid will also have to work too hard, and we don’t want that. HIIT workouts, spinning, long bouts of cardio, and WODs are some of the types of activities that can be really hard on a person with a malfunctioning thyroid.

But no fear- it doesn’t mean that you are doomed for a life of low impact exercise forever. It just means that for a little while, you need to keep exercise simple and effective. The point is to get your body accustomed to a little bit of movement and intensity, and then build up the intensity slowly over time. This will give your body some time to adapt. It has taken me two years, but I finally got back to spinning and HIIT training, without flare-up, pain or exhaustion. (You can learn more about how our bodies can adapt to proper exercise here)

So follow these tips below to get started on exercising in a healthy and safe way for your thyroid.

Exercise every day, but for shorter time periods. 

Frequent exercise with short durations are the best types for people with thyroid disorders. Daily movement can significantly reduce the risk of flare-up, while short exercise periods allow your body to get strong without getting overtaxed.

Focus on exercises that strengthen your stabilization muscles. 

Since those of us with thyroid malfunction are at a greater risk for flare-ups, we want to make sure we select the most effective strengthening moves possible. For example, most people with chronic pain struggle with back, neck and hip pain. Often, this pain is misinterpreted. Most yoga teachers, physical therapists and personal trainers will try to stretch these areas out in order to eliminate the pain. However, that technique rarely works. Instead, try using strengthening moves in the core and glutes in order to reduce the pain and inflammation in the back, neck and hip.

- A good exercise routine should include both stretching AND strengthening exercises. 

No muscle works in isolation; instead, muscles all work in conjunction with each other. Some muscles are too weak, and some are too tight. A good exercise program should be stretching the tight muscles while simultaneously strengthening the weak muscles. Doing one without the other will not be effective.

- Find an exercise program with an instructor that is knowledgeable about thyroid disorders.

Many fitness instructors, personal trainers and yoga teachers don’t know how to work with your body. Before you commit to a program, make sure your instructor is someone who knows about the medical benefits and challenges your body will face, so they can guide you towards safe and effective exercises.

- Be sure to breathe during your workouts. 

Often, those of us living with chronic pain hold our breath. You probably don’t even know you are doing it. We do it unconsciously to protect ourselves- our bodies often stiffen up when we feel pain and discomfort. However, breathing is extremely important- getting oxygen flowing can reduce pain and give us energy. AND- when we are relaxed and breathing deeply, our bodies experience lower stress, which reduces inflammation, which increases our ability to exercise without risk of pain or flare-up. It’s a win-win! So, to put this tip into practice, make sure you check in with yourself throughout the day, and remind yourself to breathe. You can even set an alarm in your phone to remind yourself to breathe! Over time, these check-ins will turn into habits, and you will remember to breathe deeply on your own without reminder.

So- take it from me- following these tips can really help you get back to an everyday, consistently challenging fitness lifestyle!

Andrea Wool