When it comes to working out, more is more, right? Actually, wrong. Too much exercise can wreak havoc on your hormones. But how would you even know if your hormones weren't, in fact, ticking along perfectly? Okay, picture this: You've been hitting it hard at the gym but just not getting the results you want. Or, is that excess fat just not budging, no matter how many HIIT sessions you rack up on ClassPass? The likelihood is that your hormones are out of sync.
Hormones are chemical messengers that keep our bodies in a happy state of equilibrium. Unfortunately, crossed wires and miscommunications happen, and before you know it your hormones are all over the place, and you're drowning your sorrows in vats of wine and ice cream (it's okay, we've all been there). So what causes our internal communication system to go haywire? It could be work stress, a high-sugar diet (probably driven by that work stress), or even too much exercise.
Jenni Rivett is a personal trainer who has built her method, Body by Rivett, around boosting the "thin" hormones and suppressing the "fat" ones. She does group fitness training, Skype workouts (which she says are popular and work well), as well as private consultations and sessions, teaching her Body by Rivett formula. We called on Rivett to explain the different hormones worth knowing about and how they affect us, plus how the right exercise can get everything back into balance.
Meet the Expert
Jenni Rivett is an international fitness and nutrition consultant. She is also an author, fitness journalist, and creator of four DVDs. She teaches between South Africa and London.
"I used to suffer quite severely with PMS and was always astounded at how fabulous I felt after a workout. The PMS would almost always totally disappear," Rivett says. "Since then, I have always been interested in the endocrine system and the role it plays in our health and wellness."
The endocrine system is comprised of glands around the body that are responsible for secreting our hormones at the correct levels to keep everything in our bodies flowing along nicely. All hormones play a valuable role in our day to day lives—including cortisol, which gets a bad rap being known as the "stress hormone" but is actually vital for helping us get up in the mornings and dealing with any life and death situations.
But, Rivett has identified that some hormones serve us better than others. Certain hormones, like the human growth hormone, help keep us strong and healthy, so we should do what we can to optimize that hormone. Others, like cortisol, are best kept at a minimum so it can just do what's needed, rather than being triggered to spiral out of control, causing side effects like weight gain around the tummy.
Rivett works with many women at different stages of life, be it early on or during peri-menopause or menopause, to help bring their hormones back into balance. "It's a big part of my job to help women with the menstrual mayhem. Exercise really goes a long way in balancing their hormones.
"I've identified the crucial hormones that make you fat and the ones that make you thin," says Rivett. "Exercise has a powerful effect on balancing, suppressing and increasing these hormones. Excess estrogen, insulin and cortisol are the hormones responsible for weight gain, while HGH, testosterone and progesterone are the ones responsible for keeping us lean," explains Rivett. "Leptin is another hormone, which, when too low, signals your body to store fat. Your body produces leptin while you sleep, so bad sleeping patterns can drastically lower the levels."
Made by the pancreas on the arrival of glucose into the bloodstream, it rises and falls according to what you eat, but increases particularly with processed carbohydrates and sugary foods.
If there's too much insulin in your system, your body will store fat, and much of it will present itself on your hips, thighs and tummy. The more weight you gain, the more insulin your body pumps out, creating a vicious cycle.
Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress, low blood sugar and exercise. Did you know cortisol supports energy metabolism during long bouts of exercise by facilitating the breakdown of fats and protein to create the glucose necessary to help fuel exercises? Excess cortisol leads to a raging appetite, typically for the wrong foods.
A wonderful hormone in the right amount, it makes conception and pregnancy possible. It's also a natural mood lifter. However, estrogen works in sync with progesterone, and both hormones need to be in balance. Progesterone helps balance estrogen and in the right ratio, the two hormones help burn body fat, act as an antidepressant, assist metabolism and promote sleep. But if you don't have enough progesterone, you can become Estrogen Dominant, which causes all manner of problems, from a sluggish metabolism and bloating to mood swings.
Human Growth Hormone
Quite simply one of the most powerful hormones. It's a fat burner, which forces your body to draw energy from your fat reserves first. HGH is produced in bucket loads after HIIT (in particular), strength training and plyometrics. This is why they cannot test sprinters for HGH, as it is naturally produced in the body after intense exercise.
Even though testosterone is commonly associated with men, it's vitally important for women too. It builds muscle, burns fat, increases energy and sex drive, strengthens bones and lifts depression.
Any strength training program longer than eight weeks seems to be the precursor to endocrine adaptation for increased testosterone levels. The best formula for increasing women's testosterone response is a mixture of cardiovascular exercise, HIIT, and resistance training.
As mentioned earlier, this is a hormone that regulates menstrual function and pregnancy. Excessive strenuous or high-intensity exercise has been shown to lower fertility in women through reduced levels of progesterone, which has a direct effect on the menstrual cycle. Therefore excessive exercise can be counterproductive in the production of this amazing hormone.
How to Use Exercise to Balance Hormones
As you can probably tell, getting your hormones all back to good or optimum levels is a balancing act. "While intense workouts improve your body chemistry, including levels of HGH and testosterone, you have to keep cortisol in check," explains Rivett. A HIIT class after a stressful day at work is probably the last thing you need. A typical workout week needs to be structured correctly to have a positive impact on all the hormones, Rivett tells me.
"Know this: The right exercise will positively boost HGH, testosterone. Both of these are lean-making and youth-boosting hormones. It will balance progesterone, which is key to avoiding weight gain and energy drains. High levels of progesterone will have you burning more calories at rest. Exercise will also drive insulin (a fat hormone) down and levels will normalize while keeping cortisol (another fat hormone) in check to prevent it from taking over your body. Fit and healthy people can more easily deal with elevated cortisol," explains Rivett. For most women, she advocates the following, which will have a positive influence on all of the aforementioned hormones:
HIIT: 12 to 20 minutes, three times a week. There is no need to do any more than this.
Strength training: A general full-body routine two to three times a week. I prefer light weight and high reps for women, with lots of functional training (squats and lunges) for the lower body.
Stretching: Five minutes after every session. Or, attend a yoga class, which will help with flexibility, and, of course, to lower your level of stress hormones.
Walking: Four to five days a week, trying to achieve 10,000 steps a day. Walking is an amazing exercise to add to your existing program.
Don't sit still: If you sit at a desk all day, get up every hour, and do something for two minutes, be it making a tea or walking over to chat with a colleague rather than emailing them.
"Acknowledging the hormone factor has been profound," she says. "Knowledge is everything, and having the understanding of hormones has kept my clients motivated and, in turn, the results have come remarkably quicker."