As a fitness enthusiast and blogger, I write about various topics that help promote exercise as a vital component of a healthy lifestyle, as well as its numerous benefits for mental wellness.
If you've kept track of my recent blogs, you'll have likely noticed that I've become captivated by the relationship between hormones, chemical messengers that regulate your bodily functions, and exercise, which can have both positive and negative effects on exercise performance and recovery.
But, have you ever wondered how hormones might impact exercise? Understanding the significance of hormones in performance can help you optimise your workouts and achieve your fitness goals.
In part 1 of 2 blogs on this topic, I dive deeper into some of the most important hormones that influence exercise and how you can manage their effects on your body. This blog will look at four important hormones: cortisol, oestrogen and progesterone, and testosterone.
Commonly referred to as the "stress hormone", cortisol is produced by your adrenal glands and plays a vital role in regulating your stress response.
During exercise, the body releases cortisol in small amounts to help cope with physical stress. It prepares the body by increasing blood sugar levels, heart rate, and blood pressure while suppressing the immune and digestive systems. This allows your body to redirect blood flow away from non-essential functions and towards the working muscles. Cortisol also promotes the breakdown of fat to provide an additional source of energy for the body during exercise.
However, too much cortisol can have negative effects on your body, particularly on muscle growth and recovery. High levels of cortisol can lead to muscle breakdown and interfere with muscle repair, which can harm exercise performance. And it doesn't stop at just muscle tissue, it can also result in the breakdown of bone and connective tissues, which can increase your risk of injury.
How to manage it
Endurance exercises, such as long-distance running or cycling, tend to result in the release of cortisol. This does not mean that endurance exercise is harmful or should be avoided, this type of exercise has numerous health benefits and is a good way to reduce stress levels.
If you want to lower cortisol levels, you can incorporate stress-management activities such as yoga or meditation into your weekly or daily routine. It's also helpful to ensure that you get adequate rest and recovery after exercise, which can help to gradually reduce cortisol levels over time.
Oestrogen and progesterone
Oestrogen is primarily responsible for the development and regulation of female reproductive organs, as well as the health of bones and the heart. In regards to exercise, high oestrogen can make you stronger, help you exercise for longer periods, and improve how efficiently your body uses oxygen and energy. However, if levels are too high, it can lead to water retention and bloating, which may affect exercise performance.
Progesterone plays a key role in the regulation of the menstrual cycle and in preparing the body for pregnancy, but it can also affect performance.
Higher levels of progesterone can lead to an increase in body temperature and metabolic rate, which can lead to a higher calorie burn during exercise. It can also promote the retention of fluids, which can reduce the risk of dehydration during exercise, and the calming of your nervous system, which can help improve sleep quality and recovery.
Low levels of both oestrogen and progesterone can lead to a range of symptoms that could impact performance, including irregular periods, hot flashes, mood swings, and slower recovery times.
How to manage it
Managing oestrogen and progesterone levels can be challenging since they fluctuate throughout the menstrual cycle. This fluctuation can affect exercise and you should track the phases of your cycle—follicular and luteal—and adjust your workouts accordingly.
During the follicular phase of the menstrual cycle, oestrogen levels rise. This is a good time to exercise regularly (focus on strength and endurance training) to help maintain hormonal balance and promote overall health and fitness.
During the luteal phase, oestrogen levels continue to rise and progesterone levels begin to increase, it's only later in the luteal phase that these levels start to decline. This is a good time to focus on lower-intensity workouts, getting adequate rest, and ensuring you properly recover. Doing so will help to avoid low progesterone levels, which can lead to fatigue and the worsening of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms such as mood swings, anxiety, and headaches.
Testosterone is a hormone primarily produced in men that helps develop reproductive tissues, such as the testicles and prostate gland and promotes masculine traits like a deeper voice, body hair growth, and libido. It is also produced in females, albeit in smaller amounts, and contributes to sex drive and bone health.
One of testosterone's most important roles is muscle growth and repair. It does this by stimulating protein synthesis, which is how your body's cells build new proteins after you tear muscle fibres during resistance training. It's important to note that testosterone is just one of many hormones involved in muscle growth and repair; it's not the only factor that determines your exercise performance.
Lower testosterone levels can lead to decreased muscle mass, reduced strength, and slower recovery times. This combination of effects can have a huge impact on exercise performance and will negatively impact your fitness goals. Higher testosterone levels have the opposite effect and will enhance exercise performance. However, excessively high levels can lead to an increased risk of injury and mood swings, especially aggression.
How to manage it
It's important to maintain balanced and adequate levels of testosterone for optimal exercise performance and overall health. Regular resistance training can increase testosterone levels in both men and women, however, the amount released will differ depending on the intensity and duration of the exercise, as well as your age, sex, and fitness.
Several other natural ways to help increase testosterone levels include getting enough sleep, managing your stress levels, and maintaining a healthy weight, all of which, if not done, will decrease testosterone levels.
While there are several natural and simple ways to increase the production of testosterone, steroids (synthetic hormones) exist that mimic the effects of testosterone on the body. Made infamous for their abuse in sports and bodybuilding, steroids can be used to rapidly increase muscle mass, strength, and endurance. However, they also come with a range of negative side effects, including liver damage, cardiovascular problems, hormonal imbalances, mood swings, and possible infertility.
Regular exercise equals better hormonal balance
Hormones play a crucial role in overall health and fitness and their levels are hugely affected by the timing, type, intensity, and duration of exercise. Put simply, regular exercise can help you improve hormonal balance. Understanding the different hormones that affect your body during exercise will help you to optimise your workouts and achieve your fitness goals faster.
Subscribe and watch out for next week's blog (part 2), where I will look at other hormones that affect exercise, including growth hormone, insulin, epinephrine and norepinephrine.
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