WHY LESS IS MORE: EXERCISING WITH A THYROID CONDITION

Know what your body can do when limited by a thyroid condition.

While there’s no doubt exercise plays a role in a healthy lifestyle, it is even more important to tune into what your body can do when medical reasons may limit you.


BY: JESSICA PATEL, RDN, LDN

My mentality towards exercise has shifted over the last two years. I’ve learned for my body, less is more.

So how did I go from being an active person to deciding not to step foot in a gym again?

Let’s back up and chat about how it all started. My active lifestyle started all the way back when I was a kid. Between recreational soccer and joining the cross-country team, I had an active childhood.

As I grew up, I stayed an avid runner, soccer player, and had several gym memberships into my early twenties. I loved the mood-boosting effects of being active, and can still recall what it feels like to have “runner’s high.” Even when a heavy work and school load disrupted my typically active routine, I tried to keep up with fitting in workouts.

Then I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune condition that impacts the thyroid. I tried to keep the same approach, even though I was symptomatic at the time: cold hands and feet, muscle aches, foggy head, and fatigue plagued me.

I struggled with any activity, yet forced myself to say active. I started on medication and was managing my symptoms as well as I could, but I began to notice exercise was a struggle.

I didn’t enjoy it anymore.

There were bouts of fatigue, muscle aches, and headaches, yet I continued to push myself at the gym with weight lifting and high intensity interval training. It felt like weights were attached to my legs as I trudged along for a half-hearted run.  What I didn’t realize at the time was I was hurting my body more than helping it.

So why do individuals with Hashimoto’s experience muscle weakness, exercise intolerance, cramps and fatigue?

It comes down to energy production.

Hypothyroidism induces metabolic myopathy, a condition of abnormal muscle energy metabolism. The body lacks its essential metabolic driver (thyroid hormone), so it can’t produce sufficient energy for regular metabolism, let alone exercise. The result is:

  • Constant fatigue
  • Muscle aches and cramps
  • Muscle weakness or decreased strength
  • Weakened immune system
  • Poor recovery

While exercise with Hashimoto’s has many benefits, but it’s the duration (how long) and type that may or may not be beneficial.

I became accustomed to feeling tired and always in desperate need of a nap. I couldn’t figure out an exercise routine that worked for me, and slowly realized that what worked for me in the past no longer felt good. Even as an active person, exercising was no longer good for my mental health.

I knew my body needed something else. It was time for a change, so I quit the gym and joined a yoga studio instead.

Those who experience exercise intolerance and low exercise recovery can consider modifying their exercise routine by:

  • Approaching exercise mindfully, and incorporating mindful movement that feels good such as yoga, walking, hiking and tai chi.
  • Limiting high intensity workouts, excessive cardio, and long duration exercise.
  • Taking a nap when you need a nap. Rest and recovery is crucial to manage Hashimoto’s.

The idea of “less is more” when it came to exercise was scary at first. I played competitive sports for a long time and wondered if yoga would be “enough” of a workout.

The first thing I noticed? I didn’t feel like crap after class.

After a few months practicing, I felt a little calmer, less achy, and less stressed. Yoga has become my mainstay not only for physical, but mental health. Slowly but surely, I could see and feel the changes in my body.

Yoga taught me to tune into my body and be more mindful.

I started to notice when I was able to push myself more, and when to back off and rest instead. Regular yoga practice improved my balance, flexibility and strength without fear of overdoing it or suffering from an autoimmune flare-up.

In fact, science and research suggests yoga practice can reduce the impact of exaggerated stress responses often found in autoimmune conditions.  Emotional benefits were experienced through yoga by relieving stress and anxiety, building my confidence, and teaching me what it means stay in the present.

Now I approach physical activity with more joy. Strenuous gym workouts have been replaced by an activity that makes me feel good,

And made me love to move my body again.

Adapted from the original article.
HEADER IMAGE: BEN KERCKX

Jessica Patel, RDN, LDN is a Chicago-based private practice dietitian who helps others connect with good food through simple, healthful cooking techniques. With a love for wholesome, natural food, Jessica uses a holistic-minded approach to nutrition to help her clients stay healthy through the healing power of nourishing foods. Visit her at Well Fed Nutrition.

12 Comments
  1. Sorry, but I disagree . With the right hormone replacement HT patients, like you and me can do the same stuff of people without thyroiditis.

    An athlete of my country won seven Olympics medals with Hashimoto…

    Manuela Di Centa.

    So don’t give up.

    I am not giving up.

    It is like to recover from a hard illness (the uncured hipotiroidism) but you can do it

  2. Thank you- I was recently diagnosed with Hashimoto’s and have been struggling to figure out the right exercise for my condition. Circuit Training makes me crash for hours afterwards.
    I’ll try Yoga☺️

  3. I have found that Walking off the pounds with Leslie Sansone works the best for me. I am 63.5 years old and trying my best to keep fit. This works. You can search for her on Youtube.

  4. I also respectfully disagree. If you are unable to do weightlifting or HIIT, I think your hormone needs are not being replaced well enough by your medication. I would suggest finding a functional medicine doctor that will adjust medications to SYMPTOMS and not to an arbitrary level. You shouldn’t barely be in the “normal” ranges, you should be in the top half or top quarter of these ranges if that’s what it takes to treat your symptoms. Also, find a physician that is willing to prescribe a medication containing T3, not just T4 as people feel better with T3 supplementation.

  5. I was diagnosed with Hashimotos Thyroiditis at age 8 along with Congential Hypothyroidsm with Absentism of the Right Lobe. I have always had a profound struggle with exercise but particualr now at 23 it is been even more challenging. I am hoping to find an exercise like you have.

  6. Trying to explain why I can’t do a “regular” workout makes some people view me as lazy or unmotivated. Imagine if you will, feeling worse and worse each time you go to the gym. Would you torture yourself anyway if you not only didn’t enjoy it but also felt physically ill and in pain afterward? No? Not me either. Some people don’t know what Hashimoto’s disease is. It’s basically an auto-immune disease that attacks the thyroid gland. Some think it’s a surgical disease. As in, remove the thyroid gland and go on replacement therapy. Problem solved! But it’s not. The immune system may not have a thyroid gland to attack but it does have other organs to target and destroy instead. Management is tricky. I can’t sit here and wait for anyone to “fix” me. I have to work this out on my own. Articles like this one are helpful. Hope it helps someone else too. Reposting on Facebook.

  7. Sorry but this athlete was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease in 1992, and in 1994 he won three gold, two silver and one bronze medals at the 1994 Olympics.

    If you have an adequate dose of replacement hormone you can do anything, and note that if you are still tired you may have another condition besides Hashimoto’s (I hope not!)

    I see that I have already commented on this in March 2019 and I can say with great happiness that I have recovered a lot since then and now I am very close to the pre-illness athletic condition.

    Good luck to all and TAKE THE RIGHT ORMONAL DOSE!

  8. I have recently been diagnosed with Hashimoto and I am 52yo male. I went through a very intense and challenging last two years that result with depression and maybe even triggered Hashimoto.

    I used to go to the gym 5/7 and loved it. Haven’t been for the last two years, and recently started again and it was like the best medicine shot for my body. My exercises are mixed, depends on how I feel, but combination of not too heavyweights, HIIT and light stretching at the end. I feel amazing after that and love feeling muscle pain in days after. I believe that is my best medicine, together with proper food intake.

    I agree with Adriano, I will never lose hope and give up, as a CPTSD person I learned at very young age to survive so I am fighting in my own way, what works for me and will keep doing that. Good luck to all

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