One big lesson my patients learn when first coming to see me that their optimal results from exercise are all about illiciting the right hormonal response. And when it comes to exercise and its effect on hormones – more is not always better. As a naturopathic doctor, I find this is especially true for patients who are exhibiting symptoms of adrenal distress, under-active thyroid, compromised immunity, sleep disruption, difficulty winding down at the end of the day, or poor recovery from their workouts. Don’t cause more stress or suppress your thyroid hormone activity (like I did, which only caused more weight gain and fatigue!). Instead, incorporate these suggestions to gain muscle, strength and vitality and balance your hormones.
Less is more
Unless you are an athlete training for a specific sport or event, workout sessions that last longer than 45 minutes are not necessary and may even be harmful. Although exercise is a wonderful long-term stress reliever, lengthy workouts can definitely crank up your cortisol levels. Cortisol is destructive to muscle tissue, especially when it’s present without the muscle-protective hormones, growth hormone and testosterone. A study done at the University of North Carolina showed a strong relationship between elevated cortisol and decreased testosterone that was most dramatic 30 minutes after endurance exercise to exhaustion. Keeping your workouts shorter, though still intense, will help prevent excessive cortisol release and will also improve your recovery time.
No rest for the wicked
To achieve both hormonal balance and aesthetic results, I recommend circuit training, which works multiple muscle groups in one session. For maximum benefits, complete your exercises with little rest between each circuit, which keeps your heart rate high throughout your workout. When you use this method, you basically get your cardio workout and resistance training all in one shorter session. Circuit training is also the best type of workout for improving insulin response (up to 23 percent, according to one study!), boosting testosterone and stimulating growth hormone—so you spend less time exercising while reaping even more benefits. A friend suggested that tennis might be a good example of circuit training. She took some tennis lessons in Boston to get her up to speed.
Along with challenging and stretching your muscles, yoga can lower blood cortisol levels, reduce adrenalin and stimulate brain-calming GABA. Numerous studies, including one by the Boston University School of Medicine, have found that yoga may be superior to other forms of exercise in its positive effect on mood and anxiety. It’s known to reduce adrenalin and stimulate the calming brain chemical GABA. So if you have excess ab fat, sleep disruption or anxiety, yoga is a stellar workout choice. I don’t recommend skimping on the weight training or cardio, but I do advise adding in a yoga session (class or DVD) one to two times a week.
Keep weights and cardio separate
Although I’ve personally used the weights-then-cardio approach for years, I certainly didn’t come up with the idea. A study from the University of Tokyo found that people who did a total-body strength workout before cycling burned 10 percent more fat than participants who only cycled. The author of the study, Dr. Kazushige Goto, also found that less fat was burned and less growth hormone was released by the group that completed cardio followed by weights. At the same time, adding cardio to the end of a particularly taxing weight-training session can cause a spike in your cortisol, because the entire workout ends up being too long and stressful. For these reasons, I recommend you do your weights and cardio sessions at separate times, if your schedule permits. If you do wish to do them together, do your cardio after your strength training, keep it short and stick to intervals for maximum benefits.
Go heavy or go home
Ladies, don’t be afraid to lift heavier weights. Just make sure you use proper form so you don’t run the risk of injuring yourself. Heavier weights tone muscle and boost growth hormone much more than the lighter weights most women tend to use. A study led by William J. Kraemer at the University of Connecticut at Storrs found greater gains of growth hormone in women who did fewer repetitions with heavier weights than in those who did higher reps with moderate weight. His research showed that women who underwent six months of moderate- or high-intensity strength training and aerobic exercise had higher amounts of growth hormone.