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Exercise for the thyroid-challenged

By Lisa Ziegel

One of the most frustrating things for people who suffer from thyroid issues is exercising. Of course, exercise is great for practically everyone, but those with either hypo- or hyper-thyroid conditions need to be especially aware of precautions they need to take. Others become frustrated because they are not readily able to see results from physical activity, such as improvement in metabolism, energy, or weight loss, thus decreasing their motivation to continue. However, although medication is still the best way to regulate thyroid problems, most doctors will still recommend exercise (along with proper eating habits) to optimally treat patients.

The most common problems arising from thyroid imbalances are either low (hypo) or high (hyper) thyroidism. There are many others but to simplify, these are the two that I will focus on in relation to exercise. The thyroid gland, located in the front lower neck, produces hormones that regulate many functions in the body. Women are more at risk for developing thyroid disease. Other risk factors include genetic history, dietary imbalances and smoking. In any case, since the symptoms experienced with either low or high thyroid can mirror those of several other conditions, it is important to get checked regularly by getting blood tests to determine thyroid hormone levels.

Once it has been determined if a person has hypothyroid or a hyperthyroid, medication will be prescribed to regulate thyroid hormones. This may be a process of trial and error, but once the right balance is found, the patient should experience improvement. For instance, with an overactive (hyper) thyroid, a person will feel overly energetic to the point of nervousness. In fact, the resting heartrate could be abnormally elevated. Loss of weight and profuse sweating may be other symptoms. As you can see, these indicators can be a problem if a person is trying to exercise and can even be dangerous, especially for the beginner. With the right medication and/or treatment, this response can be regulated, and exercising is safer.

On the other hand, in the case of underactive thyroid, fatigue and muscle weakness are obvious problems in maintaining activity. Overdoing exercise can easily lead to physical problems, and since it is harder to lose weight and stimulate the metabolism, mental frustration is another roadblock. Again, proper diagnosis and medication can improve this situation, but exercise can still not be overlooked.

A study conducted in Turkey in 2005 suggests that exercise has an effect on thyroid hormones by increasing TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone) and T4 (thyroxine), a deficiency of which can result in slower metabolism. In addition, it is well known that aerobic exercise can lower cholesterol (high-cholesterol levels are noted in people with hypothyroidism), lower blood pressure (which becomes elevated with hyperthyroidism) strengthen muscles and balance mood (higher levels of stress are indicated with low thyroid).

Performing a thyroid-self check should be a preliminary step in determining your thyroid health. You can do this by sitting in front of a mirror and taking sips from a glass of water while observing how your throat appears as you swallow. If you notice unusual bulging in the lower neck above your collarbone, get tested right away. Asking your doctor which specific tests are right for you is important. Note that distinct symptoms are not always noted, and I already mentioned that many symptoms (fatigue, sudden unexplained weight loss or weight gain, etc.) might also come from other causes, so testing is the only way to be certain.

Once you are on the right medication, and you have your doctor's OK, it is suggested you begin an exercise program under professional supervision to determine the correct frequency, duration and mode. If you decide to go it on your own, and after checking with your doctor, you can start by following the American College of Sports Medicine's minimum guideline for most adults, starting with 150 minutes per week of moderate-level physical activity. Set small, realistic goals and work toward this, building to more as you adapt.

As for frustration in reaching goals of fitness or weight loss, patience is key. As long as you are doing something, know that you are empowering yourself and moving forward in taking control of your own health. Think of rewarding yourself for your efforts, not for results you may or may not be getting. Although being diagnosed with a thyroid disease can be frustrating, medication, diet, and not of least importance, exercise, can help you feel and function at your best.