Exercise and PCOS: can movement help PCOS?

Exercise for PCOS is a hotly contended topic. Is there a best or worst exercise for PCOS? Can movement help fertility? We bust the rumours in this article, so keep reading.

What is PCOS?

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) is an endocrine disorder that affects up to 10% of people with ovaries in the UK.

PCOS is a syndrome which means it is a collection of symptoms. Symptoms include acne, oily skin, hair loss on the head, excess hair growth on the face, chest and back and more.

>> Read more | PCOS 101: A beginner’s guide to PCOS

What are the benefits of exercise?

Regardless of PCOS, movement in any form has benefits for both physical and mental wellbeing.

Regular movement can lower the risk of developing:

  • Cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Stroke
  • Osteoporosis
  • Depression 
  • High blood pressure
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Physiological and social issues

Exercise can also lead to better sleep and can even improve mood.

Can movement help PCOS?

There are a plethora of health benefits from regular movement. But what are the specific benefits of exercise for PCOS?

Insulin resistance and movement

People with PCOS often have insulin resistance. Insulin resistance means that the cells of the body don’t react as expected to the insulin produced when blood sugar levels are at a certain level. This means that blood sugar levels stay high for longer after eating.

Various studies have shown the impact of different types of exercise on insulin resistance in people with PCOS. It is theorised that increasing muscle mass can help with glucose clearance from circulation, consequently supporting the management of insulin resistance.

A pilot study of twenty people with PCOS and thirteen people without PCOS found that exercising three times per week over three months resulted in improved insulin resistance in people with PCOS. Although not all participants completed the study and it was a small group of participants to begin with. Larger studies with more participants for a longer period of time are required to understand the impact of exercise on insulin resistance in people with PCOS.

Yoga has also been seen to improve glucose metabolism in people with PCOS. Those undertaking an hourly daily practice for three months had improved blood glucose and HOMA-IR levels (a measure of insulin resistance) in a 2012 study.

>> Read more | Yoga for PCOS: 5 benefits to ease symptoms

Mental health and movement

Regular movement releases feel-good hormones that can improve your mood. And, there is a link between mental health and movement in people with PCOS.

There appears to be a link between anxiety disorders and depression in people with PCOS. A 2020 review of fifteen articles found that exercise may improve symptoms or the prevalence of depression and anxiety in people with PCOS. Similarly, a 2015 study saw positive outcomes following exercise interventions on depression and anxiety in people with PCOS.

Sleep and movement

People with PCOS are at a higher risk of suffering from sleep apnea and other sleep disturbances. Regular movement can improve sleep quality and quantity although you should avoid exercise too close to bedtime to ensure good sleep.

People with PCOS often struggle with fatigue, so it is important to remember to listen to your body and rest as often as you need to. Feeling guilty for resting is common for a lot of humans, not just people with PCOS. Rest does not need to be earned, and for people with a chronic syndrome like PCOS, sleep, rest and lowering stress is even more important to manage cortisol levels.

>> Read More | Sleep and PCOS: what’s the connection?

Fertility and movement

Fertility is impacted by a variety of factors. Regular movement may help with the restoration of ovulation and the regularity of menstrual cycles. A review of eight studies found that moderate physical activity was correlated with improved ovulation in people with PCOS.

Daily yoga practices have also been seen to improve fertility outcomes. A study of ninety people with PCOS compared those who practised yoga daily versus those who exercised daily. This study found that the yoga group had improved menstrual frequency and improved AMH, LH and FSH.

>> Read More | PCOS and Fertility: the ultimate guide to conception

Quality of life and movement

At the end of the day, improving PCOS symptoms should also account for improving your quality of life too. In a Brazilian study looking at 43 people with PCOS and 51 control subjects, participants were enrolled in a 16-week resistance exercise training programme. This study found that testosterone levels reduced significantly but there were also improvements in vitality, social aspects, and mental health at week sixteen compared to week zero.

Frequently asked questions: exercise and PCOS

We get asked many questions about exercise and PCOS, so let’s try and answer them for you here.

Is there a best exercise for PCOS?

To put it simply, the best exercise for PCOS is the one that feels good for you. There is evidence to support strength training, cardio, HIIT and yoga for PCOS. Instead of striving for perfection, finding movement that you enjoy and that you can consistently maintain in your routine is more important.

Is there a worst exercise for PCOS?

There isn’t a single “worst” type of exercise, but cortisol (a stress hormone) is often higher in people with PCOS. High-intensity workouts like HIIT training can increase cortisol levels. This may worsen symptoms of PCOS. A combination of cardio, resistance (strength) training and mindful movement like yoga is likely to be good for the mind and body. And don’t forget a rest day!

Are there any types of exercise I should avoid for PCOS?

No, unless you are told you are unable to by your doctor. People with PCOS can engage in all forms of movement and exercise. High-intensity exercise can increase cortisol levels, which are already high in people with PCOS, so you may want to be mindful of HIIT workouts for example.

What should I eat before, during and after exercising?

You don’t need to work out the exact macronutrients or calories to optimise recovery and performance when working out. But having some knowledge about PCOS workout nutrition can be helpful.

>> Read more | PCOS workout nutrition: pre, post and during exercise

Key takeaways: exercise and PCOS

Whatever exercises you choose to do or not do, you know your body better than anyone else. So choosing an exercise or movement that feels good to you and you can maintain consistently is the most important thing. Self-care is supposed to be enjoyable, not a chore, so have fun with it!

Alex Okell ANutr Founder and Editor

Founder and Editor | Registered Associate Nutritionist


Founder of Be The Collective LTD [The PCOS Collective & The Endo Collective] Alex Okell ANutr is a London-based reproductive health nutritionist with experience in research, private practice and digital media. She holds a Master’s degree in Nutrition from King’s College London and has co-authored papers with the University of Cambridge, King’s College London, The Food Foundation and the Food Standards Agency. Alex offers 1:1 PCOS support in our virtual PCOS clinic.

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