Exercising With Thyroid Disease

Why it's important and how to get (and stay) moving

Women doing aerobics
Vegterfoto/Stocksy United

If you have thyroid disease, your symptoms may have gotten in the way of a regular exercise program, but you should know that making exercise part of your daily routine can actually help you manage your symptoms better. Of course, there are a bunch of other health and wellness benefits too. Here we've got some advice on how to get started, precautions to consider, benefits for your thyroid, how much exercise you should be getting every week, and how to get out of an exercise rut and keep things fresh and exciting.

Benefits

When you have a thyroid disorder, exercise has a whole host of benefits that impact not only your overall health, but that can help relieve some of your symptoms. For example:

  • Increases your energy levels: If you have an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism), you may often feel fatigued, but regular workouts will combat your tiredness.
  • Supports deeper, better sleep: When your thyroid is producing too much hormone (hyperthyroidism), your sleep may be fragmented and you may have night sweats that wake you up, resulting in poorer sleep. Getting exercise often results in a good night's sleep.
  • Improves your mood: Depression is common with thyroid disorders, especially hypothyroidism. Exercise gets your endorphins ("feel good" hormones) moving and makes you feel good.
  • Increases your bone density: Bone loss can occur with hyperthyroidism, but studies show that strength training can help you get some of that loss back.
  • Boosts your metabolism: When you have hypothyroidism, your metabolism takes a nosedive, causing you to gain weight, which is likely one of the first symptoms you noticed. Exercising can be another tool, along with your thyroid medication, to help support a healthy metabolism by burning calories and developing muscle, which in turn burns fat.

    Exercise even lowers your risk for heart disease, which is important since having a thyroid disorder automatically increases your risk of developing a heart condition at some point.

    The Link Between Thyroid Disorders and Heart Conditions

    Exercise and Weight Loss

    If you're dealing with an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism), you may also be carrying some extra weight, a common outcome when your thyroid hormone levels are low. Exercising regularly can help you get back in shape and drop those extra pounds, as well as maintain a healthy weight.

    Try using a weight loss calculator to help you come up with a goal weight, a target date for hitting your goal, and to see how many calories you'll need to consume daily in order to meet your goal based on your activity level.

    Even better for your weight loss goals, as well as your thyroid symptoms, you can combine a healthy meal plan with your exercise plan. While there's no special diet when you have thyroid disease, if you're trying to lose weight, sticking within certain calorie limits can help you achieve your goals.

    1500 Calorie Meal Plan for Thyroid Disease

    Best Exercises

    When you have thyroid disease, the best exercise depends on your health status. If your thyroid hormones are well-controlled and you're relatively healthy, you can generally participate in the same exercises anyone without a thyroid disorder would. If you're unsure about starting an exercise program, be sure to talk to your doctor first.

    No- or Low-Impact Activities

    If you haven't exercised in a long time, you may want to take it slow, choosing no- or low-impact exercises to start with in order to let your body gradually adjust. Pick one or more activities you enjoy, such as:

    • Walking
    • Strength training
    • Bike riding or indoor cycling
    • Elliptical training
    • Stair climbing
    • Yoga
    • Tai Chi
    • Hiking on easy terrain
    • Water aerobics
    • Dancing
    • Swimming

    If you like, mix things up, choosing different activities on different days. Gradually work toward being able to increase the intensity of your workouts as your body becomes more used to the aerobic exercise. No- and low-impact doesn't mean these workouts don't burn calories—it's all about the intensity.

    Getting a Good Workout With Low-Impact Exercise

    High-Impact Activities

    If you're already doing no- or low-impact exercises and/or you're ready to go to the next level, consider adding some of these high-impact aerobic activities to your routine:

    • Jumping rope
    • Jogging or running
    • Jumping jacks
    • High-intensity interval training
    • Hill climbing
    • Cross-country skiing
    • Stair climbing
    The Pros and Cons of High Impact Exercises

    Exercise Guidelines

    If you're a newbie when it comes to regular exercise, you may be wondering how much you should be getting on a daily basis.

    According to the current guidelines for physical activity, in order to see noticeable health benefits, adults should aim for 10-minute or longer sessions of one of the following every week:

    • Two and a half hours of moderate aerobic exercise, like playing doubles tennis, brisk walking (3 mph or more), water aerobics, bicycling (under 10 mph), or gardening
    • One hour and 15 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise, such as swimming laps, playing singles tennis, jogging, running, bicycling (10 mph or more), jumping rope, or heavy gardening
    • An equivalent combination of the two

    You should also work on moderate- to high-intensity muscle strengthening exercises that use all your major muscle groups, like lifting weights or using resistance bands, at least two days a week.

    Strength training is particularly important when you have an underactive thyroid because muscle mass will help your slowed-down metabolism burn more calories. Make sure you're getting enough protein to help you build that all-important muscle too.

    The Best Kinds of Protein for Building Muscle

    For even bigger benefits, increase your moderate aerobic activity to five hours per week and your vigorous aerobic exercise to two hours and 30 minutes per week.

    Be aware that when you have thyroid disease, particularly hypothyroidism, you're probably going to have to work a little harder than someone without thyroid disease to get in shape and lose weight. The good news is that the results and the improvement in how you feel will be worth the extra effort.

    Precautions

    If your thyroid condition isn't well-controlled or hasn't yet been diagnosed, exercise can actually be dangerous for you. An overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism) produces excess thyroid hormones, which significantly increases your metabolism and heart rate. If your thyroid hormones aren't being controlled, too much exercise, especially at a high intensity, can cause you to go into heart failure.

    Conversely, an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) doesn't produce enough thyroid hormones, slowing down your metabolism and your heart rate. Because of this, exercise can be hard on your heart if your thyroid hormones aren't well-controlled.

    It's important to talk to your doctor if your thyroid symptoms aren't improving or getting worse, or if you think you have the symptoms of a thyroid disorder, especially before you start any sort of new exercise program.

    Symptoms of Thyroid Disease

    Once your thyroid symptoms are under control and your hormone levels are normal, incorporating exercise into your routine is not only safe, it's encouraged, so you can start reaping all the benefits that getting active has for your thyroid and your overall health.

    Staying Motivated

    When you have a thyroid condition, you're just as susceptible to exercise boredom as everyone else. You know the importance of staying committed to fitness, but that may not be enough to actually get you onto the treadmill or into the gym.

    Here are some tips from fellow thyroid patients who have mastered the art of enjoying regular workouts:

    • Hire a personal trainer. A few sessions with a personal trainer can be a worthwhile investment in your fitness. A trainer can design an exercise program that's specific to your needs and abilities. She can also show you exactly how to perform exercises, keep you motivated, and implement a program that will use your time most effectively.
    • Exercise with friends. When you exercise with your friends, you're keeping each other committed to showing up and working out. Beyond that benefit, you can also entertain each other with chatter to take your mind off the effort and encourage each other to keep going. You can invite your friends along or make new friends at your fitness center.
    • Turn up the music. Music is a classic way to take your mind off your workout. You can find music mixes, playlists, and channels that are specific to the pace or intensity of your workout. No matter what type of music you prefer, you can find something with a beat that will get you going and help you feel motivated.
    • Listen to audiobooks or podcasts. You can learn something new or be entertained during your workout with audiobooks or podcasts. There is usually free access to audiobooks from your local library or you can buy them through Audible.com. Podcasts are another way to engage your mind during your workout. An added potential benefit of audiobooks and podcasts is that you may be motivated to keep going a little longer just so you can finish a chapter or episode.
    • Set goals and concentrate on results. If you set exercise goals, you'll be more motivated to do your workouts and achieve them. A goal can be the number of workouts you do each week, the minutes or distance (running, walking, cycling) of your workouts, the speed you develop, or the amount of weight you can lift. Track your workouts to see your progress.
    • Use an exercise program app, book, or video. Following a program can get you past being confused about where to start, what exercises to include, and how to perform them. There are a multitude of ways to enjoy a program. Exercise apps are a great way to take your program with you. Once you find your interest waning, switch to a new app to reinvigorate yourself. There are also plenty of books and videos to choose from.
    • Get outside for your walk, run, or bike ride. If you've been logging miles on the treadmill or stationary cycle, bust out into the outdoors for a change. If you can find a green space, park, or woods, that sort of environment is even better for relieving stress.
    • Change your pace. If you typically walk for exercise, try speed walking. Or, you can add running intervals and progress from walking to running. Try a spinning class as a break from a solo cycling workout.
    • Implement a "no exercise, no TV" policy. Watching a movie or favorite television show can be a good way to distract yourself on the treadmill, elliptical trainer, or stationary cycle. Make a vow that you can only watch while you're exercising.
    • Try an exercise class. Check what exercise classes are offered at local gyms and fitness centers and give a few of them a try. You may discover you love circuit training, Zumba, Barre, or boot camp workouts, and you may be surprised with which classes excite you the most.
    • Walk more. Add more walking throughout your day, even if it's just a short walk. Wear a pedometer or fitness band to encourage yourself to log more steps. You may find it motivating to walk to the store and back rather than drive, ​or to pay a visit to someone rather than texting or calling them.
    • Take an adventure getaway or vacation. Pick a national park or state forest to go for a one- or two-hour hike next weekend. Rent a kayak and get lessons. Go to a climbing gym and learn the basics, then go bouldering. If it's winter, try cross-country skiing or learn downhill skiing. If you've always wanted to ride a horse, buy lessons at a riding academy or schedule a dude ranch getaway. Look into bicycling tours.
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    Article Sources
    • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Measuring Physical Activity Intensity. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Updated June 4, 2015. https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/measuring/index.html

    • Cleveland Clinic. Uncontrolled Thyroid: Exercise, Diet Risks. Published October 31, 2013. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/uncontrolled-thyroid-exercise-diet-risks/

    • Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Physical Activity Guidelines: Adults. Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health. Office of the Secretary. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Updated October 14, 2018. https://health.gov/paguidelines/guidelines/adults.aspx

    • Temple LM, Saigal P. Hypothyroidism. In: Rakel D, ed. Integrative Medicine. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier, Inc.; 2018:347–360.e3. doi:10.1016/B978-0-323-35868-2.00034-7.