Can I Exercise With An Overactive Thyroid?

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Hunter Bennett

An overactive thyroid is one of the most common hormonal issues to afflict modern man. It can affect your metabolism, your weight, your cardiovascular health, and even your emotional wellbeing.

But what is it, and importantly, how does it affect your exercise capabilities?

What is hyperthyroidism?

Your thyroid is arguably one of the most important parts of your endocrine system. It is a very small gland (that is actually shaped like a butterfly) that sits at the base of your neck, just below your Adam’s apple.

Now, your thyroid gland is where you make and secrete the two main hormones that regulate your metabolic rate, being Triiodothyronine (or T3 for short) and Thyroxine (or T4 for short).

Taking all of this into consideration, hyperthyroidism occurs when your thyroid gland becomes overactive, and begins to secret too much thyroid hormone – which actually accelerates your metabolic rate (Premawardhana, 2006).

What are the symptoms of hyperthyroid?

Given that hyperthyroidism can speed up your metabolism, it can also come with several associated symptoms – some of which are much more severe than others (Girgis, 2011).

  • Increased appetite
  • Fidgeting and restlessness
  • Inability to concentratewoman sitting down with her head in her hands
  • Weakness
  • The development of an irregular or fast heartbeat
  • Trouble sleeping, and even insomnia
  • Hair loss
  • Rapid and unexplainable weight loss

In conjunction with these common side effects, it is also important to note that because hyperthyroidism causes a huge increase in your energy expenditure, it can leave you in a near constant state of catabolism.

This means that if left unchecked, it also has the potential to lead to muscle wastage and associated declines in bone mineral density.

Not good.

Related Article: Exercising With Thyroid Disorders

What are the causes of hyperthyroid?

Hyperthyroidism is quite unique as it can be caused by a number of different factors, with the most common being Graves’ disease.

Graves’ disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes certain antibodies made in your body to stimulate the thyroid gland. This stimulation causes the gland to secrete too much thyroid hormone, which results in the onset of hyperthyroidism.

Some other common causes of hyperthyroidism are:

  • Too much iodine is taken in through diet, which is a key compound used in the production of both thyroid hormones.
  • Inflammation of the thyroid gland, which causes the thyroid hormones to literally leak out of the gland.
  • The development of a tumor on the ovaries or testes can cause the increased secretion of thyroid stimulating hormone, which will act to elevate thyroid hormone secretion.
  • The development of a benign tumor on the thyroid gland can also accelerate thyroid hormone production.

As the causes of the disease can be so varied, it is imperative that you seek advice from a medical professional to optimize an appropriate treatment plan.

What are the treatments for hyperthyroid?

As there are several potential causes of hyperthyroidism, it can also be treated in a myriad of different ways. Some of the most common treatments include:

  • Medication: Certain medications (known as anti-thyroid medications) can act to downregulate the thyroid gland, lowering its thyroid hormone production and
  • Radioactive iodine: is a more severe treatment option that kills off a portion of the cells that produce thyroid hormones. This consequently reduces the amount of thyroid hormone produced by the gland.
  • Surgery: in some very severe cases, a section of the thyroid gland can be surgically removed.

It is also worth mentioning that there is some evidence to suggest that making some key dietary changes can also help improve symptoms (Sharma, 2014; Wu, 2015).

These changes include eating a diet rich in:

  • Cruciferous vegetables: such as broccoli, bok choy, brussel sprouts, kale, and cauliflower.
  • Iron-rich foods: such as beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains, poultry, and red meat.
  • Selenium-rich foods: such as brazil nuts, couscous, chia seeds, mushrooms, tea, lamb, out bran, and turkey.

Exercising with untreated hyperthyroidism: what you need to know

Now, with all this in mind, you might find yourself wondering “Can I exercise with an overactive thyroid?”, or even “does exercise make hyperthyroidism worse?”

Simply, the answer is yes you can exercise – however, there are some caveats around this (McAllister, 1995).

First and foremost, hyperthyroidism is already associated with an increased heart rate at rest, as well as during exercise. If you are exercising with untreated hyperthyroidism, then this excess stress on the heart may have the potential to cause cardiovascular dysfunction, which is obviously not all that good.

Secondly, with hyperthyroidism, your metabolism is already elevated.

I have already explained how this means that your energy expenditure will always be through the roof. This alone can lead to weight loss, some declines in muscle mass, and reductions in bone mineral density.

As a result, exercising in an untreated state may exacerbate these issues by increasing your energy expenditure even further. Ultimately, this all means that you need to be very selective with the exercises that you choose to perform.

Now, with all this in mind, there is some recent evidence to suggest that resistance training may actually offer a very useful option.

This research has shown that if people with hyperthyroidism perform weight training for as little as two times per week, they will see increases in muscle mass, normalization in their metabolism, and even increases bone mineral density (Bousquet-Santos, 2006).

In short, it can reverse many of the negative effects associated with hyperthyroidism.

How to get hyperthyroidism under control

Arguably the most important thing when it comes to getting your hyperthyroidism under control is to seek professional medical advice first. As boring as it may sound, as an overactive thyroid can be caused by a number of different things, it needs to be addressed on an individual basis.

While you are undertaking this first step, there is also merit in making some of the dietary changes mentioned above to help better regulate your thyroid gland. This will help facilitate the process of returning your thyroid levels back to normal.

It is important to note that if you have been suffering from undiagnosed hyperthyroidisms for a long period of time, then this process may take a bit more time – which may, in turn, prolong your return to exercise.

Which brings us to our next point nicely…woman performing yoga

A safe return to exercise

In my mind, the best starting point to return to exercise is the introduction of gentle aerobic activity, in conjunction with some easy muscle strengthening exercises.

Think yoga, tai chi, and weight training with lighter loads.

Over time, you would aim to meet the recommended guidelines of 150 minutes of aerobic exercise per week, and a minimum of two muscle-strengthening activities per week – but first you need to ease into it.

Related Article: Atrial Fibrillation, Exercise & Health

What are the benefits of exercise on hyperthyroidism?

So, the benefits of exercise with an overactive thyroid (once you have got your thyroid levels under control, of course) are very much as you would expect – extremely positive, and very varied (Bousquet-Santos, 2006; Cutovic, 2012).

These benefits include:

  • Better weight management
  • Improved muscle function, strength, and endurance
  • Better cardiovascular and metabolic health
  • Increased bone density
  • Better mental health
  • Enhanced quality of life

There is even some evidence to suggest that the implementation of a long-term exercise program using both aerobic exercise and weights training can cause lasting improvements in thyroid hormone levels.

Amazingly, these improvements may even lessen the need for medication in long-term hyperthyroid sufferers. This suggests that exercise may offer one of the best ways to control hyperthyroidism.

Take Home Message

Hyperthyroidism is a chronic condition that results in the excessive secretion of your thyroid hormones. Over time, this can lead to a marked increase in metabolism, in conjunction with muscle wastage, reductions in bone density, and even cardiovascular dysfunction.

Fortunately, it is not a death sentence.

There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that when used in conjunction with traditional treatment options, both diet and exercise can cause lasting improvements in thyroid levels. This offers potential long-term treatment for hyperthyroidism.

References

Premawardhana, L. D. K. E., and J. H. Lazarus. “Management of thyroid disorders.” Postgraduate medical journal 82.971 (2006): 552-558.

Girgis, Christian M., Bernard L. Champion, and Jack R. Wall. “Current concepts in Graves’ disease.” Therapeutic advances in endocrinology and metabolism 2.3 (2011): 135-144.

Sharma, Ruchita, Shantanu Bharti, and KVS Hari Kumar. “Diet and thyroid-myths and facts.” Journal of Medical Nutrition and Nutraceuticals 3.2 (2014): 60.

Wu, Qian, et al. “Low population selenium status is associated with increased prevalence of thyroid disease.” The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism 100.11 (2015): 4037-4047.

McAllister, Richard M., Michael D. Delp, and M. Harold Laughlin. “Thyroid status and exercise tolerance.” Sports Medicine 20.3 (1995): 189-198.

Bousquet-Santos, Kelb, et al. “Resistance training improves muscle function and body composition in patients with hyperthyroidism.”. Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation 87.8 (2006): 1123-1130.

Cutovic, Milisav, et al. “Structured exercise program improves functional capacity and delays relapse in euthyroid patients with Graves’ disease.”. Disability and Rehabilitation 34.18 (2012): 1511-1518.

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