Exercise Your Hormones

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We see and feel the difference in our muscle tone and cardiovascular endurance when we exercise regularly - but the impact of consistent challenging workouts goes far beyond those two factors. Exercise impacts our hormones which regulates so much of how we feel (and the decisions we make). Here are five hormones that you want to know about...

What it does: Irisin aka the exercise hormone has been shown to battle fat on two fronts: First it activates genes that turn bad white fat into good brown fat, and also regulates undifferentiated stem cells to become bone-building cells instead of fat storage. It may also protect brain cells from injury and aging.

How exercise affects it: Challenging workouts stimulates your body’s irisin production and provides more evidence of why strength training is beneficial. In one trial, single sessions of both moderate intensity exercise and HIIT raised levels of the hormone by 12 percent among obese women; in another study, single sessions of both intense endurance exercise and strength training increased irisin.

What it does: Estrogen is the most important female sex hormone, playing a major role in the development of physical features like breasts, the menstrual cycle, and reproduction. It also affects bone health, cholesterol, and more, making it the master of your endocrine system.

How exercise affects it: Women need estrogen, but too much is a major risk factor for breast cancer. Unfortunately, many women have excess estrogen circulating for several reasons - everything from pesticides to the pill. “Most women, starting around age 35, develop estrogen dominance. Exercise helps to reverse this trend, leading to lower risk of breast cancer for premenopausal and postmenopausal women alike,” says Sara Gottfried, MD, author of The Hormone Cure and The Hormone Reset Diet. In fact, not only does exercise reduce breast cancer risk, it also reduces mortality after diagnosis and among survivors.

What it does: Testosterone is the male sex hormone, but it’s also produced in women’s bodies (in smaller amounts). It plays a major role in helping to muscle growth, and is responsible for repairing muscle proteins damaged by exercise.

How exercise affects it: “When studies control for menstrual cycle and are performed in lean women, exercise stimulates production of testosterone,” says Dr. Gottfried. Amongst other things, testosterone’s health benefits include boosting sex drive, helping increase muscle mass, and reduce excess belly fat.

Human growth hormone (HGH)
What it does: HGH plays many roles in your body’s essential functions, including contributing to muscle and bone strength, but one of the greatest benefits is its ability to regulate fat metabolism.

How exercise affects it: Your body releases HGH periodically on its own, especially during sleep - which is another reason to get your rest! And certain kinds of workouts (not endurance workouts) have been shown to stimulate major production increases - specifically high-intensity resistance workouts with challenging weights and explosive movements (the type that leaves you breathless real quick).

What it does: Cortisol aka the stress hormone is known for good reason. It’s essentially responsible for regulating changes in the body in response to anxiety and tension. People really feeling the pressures of life generally have excess cortisol circulating (chronic cortisol increase), which increases abdominal fat. 

How exercise affects it: Studies have shown low-intensity exercise may decrease cortisol levels (or, at the very least, not affect them at all), while moderate to high-intensity exercise may increase cortisol short term.

The one kind of exercise that does lead to chronic cortisol increase is intense endurance training (ie marathon training). “If you’re an endurance athlete, you’ll need additional measures to counteract oxidative stress and high levels of cortisol, such as taking supplemental vitamin C,” Dr. Gottfried advises. For everyone else, “aim for targeted, smart overload followed by adequate and active rest.” It's important to work hard and rest well.

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