When we think of exercising, we tend to think of the benefits for mood and energy, as well as our physical health. But exercise can have an even more subtle effect on our bodies. And I'm talking about on the chemical level: There are a number of ways
working out can affect your hormones, and this can influence all parts of how your body functions, including how your body handles stress, regulates insulin, your sex drive, and even your risk of breast cancer.
"How you exercise affects your hormones, both positively and negatively," gynecologist Sara Gottfried, MD, author of
The Hormone Cure and The Hormone Reset Diet , tells Bustle. "When we exercise, we tend to think more is better, so we exercise harder, longer, and more intensely. But actually, exercise has a U-shaped association, meaning that moderate amounts are optimal but low or high levels can be harmful."
Given that exercise can affect so much of what
goes on with your body's hormones, it makes sense why working out is important for balancing out the body in all aspects, including your mental health, your energy levels, your sleep, and more. Here are eight ways your workout can have an effect on your hormones. Matthias Hangst/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images
Endorphins are likely the most recognized hormone affected by "Endorphins are endogenous opioids secreted from the pituitary gland that blocks pain, creates a feeling of euphoria (i.e. a runner’s high), blocks pain, and reduces anxiety,"
clinical sports neuropsychologist Dr. Erin Reynolds tells Bustle. Getting your heart rate up can boost your endorphin levels, and unlike synthetic opioids that we habituate to, regular exercise over time will lead to an increased sensitivity to endorphins. "You will feel that runner’s high faster, and it may last longer," she says. "That’s how (with a regular routine), people can exercise for longer times or run for longer distances without feeling pain or fatigue." Sean Gallup/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Estrogen is the primary female sex hormone, and it mainly responsible for the regulation of the female reproductive system and secondary sex characteristics (i.e. breast development, menstrual cycle, reproduction). "Although women need estrogen,
too much of it is not good and has been identified as a big risk factor for breast cancer," says Reynolds. "Many women have too much estrogen in their systems to start with. In fact, many women over the age of 35 develop estrogen dominance. Exercise, in this case, helps to reduce excess estrogen, thereby reducing risk of breast cancer." Michael Steele/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images
Cortisol helps to control mood, motivation, and the fear response, and exercising can help prevent overproduction of the hormone. "Cortisol is secreted from the adrenal glands, and
chronic overproduction of cortisol is associated with adrenal fatigue," says Reynolds. "Regular exercise can be very helpful in regulating cortisol, however, low intensity steady state training has been more effective in decreasing or regulating cortisol levels, while high intensity workouts (i.e. Crossfit) have been associated with increased cortisol levels in the acute period following exercise."
It Improves Insulin Sensitivity
Working out can prevent insulin resistance, which can strengthen your liver function. This limits fatty deposits in the liver, also known as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, says Gottfried. As a result of this, it can jump-start your metabolism and slow down the oxidative damage associated with the disease. "There are a few ways to optimize insulin with your workouts," she says. "HIIT improves insulin sensitivity, but if it raises cortisol too much (for example, not resting sufficiently between intervals or not recovering adequately between workouts), that can worsen insulin balance. If you’re a high cortisol type, go for regular, brisk aerobic exercise to strengthen liver function."
It Stimulates Production Of Testosterone
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Testosterone is an important hormone responsible for muscle growth and maintenance, increasing metabolism, and boosting overall confidence. Although it's mostly thought of in relationship to men, testosterone is equally important for women. "Women have much less testosterone than men naturally, but low testosterone in women can cause the same problems," says Reynolds. "The good news is that it only takes about 20 minutes of exercise for testosterone levels to increase, and levels may stay increased for up to 3 hours following the exercise session. Over time, a regular workout routine may increase overall levels of testosterone beyond that time frame."
It Stimulates Human Growth Hormone (HGH)
Exercise can help boost production of the human growth hormone, but it requires some high intensity. "Burst training, or high-intensity interval training (HIIT), is your GH-boosting ticket," says Gottfried. "
Studies show HIIT proves incredibly effective to reduce fat, improve insulin sensitivity, and build more muscle. Ideally you’ll want to combine HIIT with weight resistance to optimize GH and other hormonal levels, like testosterone."
Irisin is a hormone that has recently been discovered. It was first identified in 2012 and is often referred to as the exercise hormone. "Researchers first identified irisin when noticing that exercise, first in mice and then in humans, produced a cascade of chemicals, including this newcomer," says Reynolds. They noticed that increased irisin helped turn white fat into brown fat, which is good for the body and helps to regulate body temperature. Although most types of exercise will increase irisin, more studies suggest that endurance and strength training may be the most effective."
It Increases Adiponectin
Adiponectin is a
protein hormone that plays a role in protecting against insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. "In women over 40, aerobic exercise and core work causes significant increases in adiponectin levels," says Gottfried. "Adiponectin is secreted by fat cells and regulates glucose and fat breakdown."
You might not realize it, but your daily workouts can have a profound effect on regulating your hormones that help your body function in all areas. Just another benefit of getting those steps in.