The Best and Worst Types of Exercise for Women

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I am like the womanizer of exercise (or at least I think I have enough game to say I am). I have tried and dated most every form there is. I've been the class enthusiast, barre believer, TRX addict, marathon chaser, powerlifter, lifelong dancer, cycle connoisseur, yoga lover, home workout dabbler, circuit queen, and CrossFit overachiever. MANY dates, MANY breakups.

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After years of playing the field, I found a style of exercise that serves my hormones as much as it serves my soul. A lasting sort of love that makes me swoon…...but more on that in a minute;)

The purpose of this post is two-fold:

  1. To bust myths surrounding exercise and get out of the “ you should be doing this to get smaller” mindset

  2. Take a critical look at the most popular forms of exercise we, as women, are told to engage in, and see what the science and anecdotal evidence points to as far as healthful v harmful for our female physiology

The REAL purpose of exercise

I can’t begin to talk about movement without forcing us to discuss the elephant in the room: Most women view exercise as a tool to become smaller. It is what we were taught, it is what we know, and it is what we do. A lot of us SAY we want to be healthy, and that is why we step on the treadmill; but really, we do it to become smaller and lose weight. Either because that's what we think healthy means, and/or we as women are just constantly striving to shrink ourselves to conform to societal beauty standards. So we hop on and chase after that ‘perfect body’ all while telling ourselves we are doing the GOOD THING.

Here is the problem I have with modern day movement: it is not founded in ACTUAL health or joy, which is what I firmly believe exercise should be rooted in. It is founded, for many, in SHOULDS and SHOULD NOTS. We pick  running because we see skinny women who are runners and think it will make us look like them, we choose yoga because it is trendy, or we choose pilates because one time Miranda Kerr said it helps elongate her limbs so we hit every class hoping one day to wake up looking like a 6 ft victoria secret model…..

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Just remember, the higher you are the harder you fall. I got short legs and I RARELY fall hard....being so close to the ground and whatnot.

We as a culture have lost the ability to engage in joyful movement and instead engage in most exercise like it is a punishment. Seeing phrases like “sweat is your fat cells crying”, “time to kill some fat”, or...my personal favorite, “ unless you Puke, Faint, or Die, KEEP GOING”......um. WHAT. These are just a few of the ones gracing Pinterest ‘motivation’ boards out there.

We use harsh, shame riddled tactics to move our bodies and see it as something we are doing TO our bodies, not FOR them.

This, my friends, is the critical error.

This is where years and years of diet magazines, women's health, and fitness trends got it wrong.

Movement done right does not require posters of ‘motivation’, it requires a listening ear and properly guided facts.

Exercise is defined as an activity that requires physical effort and improves our health and wellbeing. THAT'S IT. It is something you physically DO that improves our health and wellbeing. Do you see how broad that is? How a MILLION different things can be exercise? Going out and dancing with your girlfriends, taking a hike, grabbing your pup for a walk around the neighborhood, having a dance party by yourself in your underwear, ALL THIS IS EXERCISE. All of these things can improve your health, move your body, and allow you to engage in movement in a joyous way.

I want us to move away from 'Exercise looks like THIS', and move towards, ‘I wonder how my body wants to move today’. I want us to get to a place where we can tune into what our body is craving and what our mind needs.

Now, I know what you're thinking, ‘yeah, but jess, I thought you would ACTUALLY talk about exercise’...DONT WORRY. I'm getting there. As always, I like to present facts with the caveat of balance and self-love. Meaning, though I go over what forms of exercise I  recommend and which I don't, it is ultimately your body and your choice. And you can do EVERYTHING as long as it is in balance and a proper mindset of love and not shame.  Take the endocrinological knowledge I discuss, your body’s own limits, and your personal preferences into account.

Kay?

Kay.

Let's talk exercise.

The Best according to JESS (....and science)

1. Restorative Exercise: aka walking and yoga

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So, honestly, out of all the kinds of exercise out there, I'm going to go ahead and label restorative movement as something you SHOULD be incorporating into your week NO MATTER WHAT.

‘ I thought you just said we should move away from ‘should’ and ‘should not’...okay, YES. But also, the science is OVERWHELMING that this type of movement is critical for lowering cortisol levels and improving multiple markers for health. I am rarely the kind of person to tell you what to do, but just trust me on this. Find a way to incorporate yoga and walking into your routine. Your hormones will thank you.

Restorative Movement like yoga, walking, and Qigong help regulates our cortisol levels, lower inflammatory markers, and stimulate our parasympathetic nervous system. Every single one of which is CRITICAL for hormone balance, strong immunity, mental stability, and fertility.

Researchers have found that yoga outperforms aerobic (cardio) exercise at improving balance, flexibility, posture, strength, pain level, daily energy level, mood, lowers your risk of cardiovascular disease and improves other social and occupational functioning.

Its also been shown to lower inflammatory markers, which we now know are indicative for most all chronic disease AND been implicated in helping women havinghealthier pregnancies than non-practicing women.

IT IS THE REAL DEAL GUYS.

But my favorite thing about yoga? Studies show it increases our body awareness (our ability to notice the sensations going on in our body). Basically, yoga teaches us how to tune in and LISTEN to our body. The study I linked to discusses the positive implications it had for patients’ body image and disordered eating. This is why I LOVE yoga for myself, and also firmly recommend it to all clients struggling with body image, disordered eating, anxiety, or body awareness. Beyond that, being able to improve our body awareness can have a domino effect on the rest of our life: helping us tune into our emotions, helping us recognize symptom and trigger correlations, helping us better care for our own bodies, and helping us become skilled at respecting our own limits in exercise, therefore preventing injury and stress overload.

If adding long walks or a relaxing yoga flow to your routine doesn’t sound appealing, my advice to you is this: Don’t knock it till you try it for a solid few weeks. Use it as a supplement, a couple times a week, and see how your mind and body react. All I ask for is an open mind here folks.

2.Resistance training: aka Lift Heavy Things

Yes yes yes, excuse me while I gush like a school girl. All of you that follow me on InstagramKNOW how in love I am with my barbell. As a woman who spent years of her life using exercise as a tool to get SMALLER, I cannot tell you the emotional and physical freedom lifting weights has given me. I lift now to become strong, I seek to BUILD my body, not tear it down, and there is something so swoon-worthy about picking up a heavy piece of metal LIKE A BOSS…..but enough gushing. Let's get to the science of it all, shall we?

Resistance training is an exercise using resistance bands, free weights, weight machines, or barbells….basically anything that involves RESISTANCE on your body. This is what we call “ANAEROBIC EXERCISE”, and it is the most efficient way to build muscle.

You might be thinking: Why would you, a woman, want to do such a thing? Well, besides the fact that it makes you strong enough to lift stuff without the help of a man (my favorite side effect), it is extremely protective of our bodies AND OUR HORMONES! Increased muscle mass is linked to:

-faster metabolism: higher amounts of muscle mass burns more calories at rest

-increased bone density/strength and decreased risk of osteoporosis

-improved sleep quality

-lowered anxiety (which is protective of our progesterone production!)

-helps regulate estrogen levels→helping with things like Estrogen Dominance

-increased insulin resistance→ lower risk of Diabetes

-decreased risk of injury

-may help prevent cognitive decline as we age and promote brain plasticity

-lower inflammation IN WOMEN (this study is done on all women)

-enhanced performance and focus on everyday tasks

-supports robust testosterone levels(HELLO LIBIDO)

My favorite side effect that even science can’t hit us with? The mental and emotional strength I've experienced and witnessed other women experience as they engage in weight training. I've seen a woman get her first unassisted pull-up and start crying (which then prompted me to cry...obviously).

Why? Because there is something special about a woman being strong enough to lift herself up in a world that often seeks to tear her down.

Though I strongly believe you should pursue the movement that brings you the most happiness, I will also try to convince every woman I know to get under some iron. Especially all my ladies out there that struggle with PCOS, insulin resistance, or are pre-diabetic/diabetic. It’s good for the body and its good for the soul. Try it and see for yourself:)

Here are my favorite exercise-science based resources that talk about form, give workouts, and are a great place to get started for all things lifting related for women:

Girls Gone Strong

Fit Design by Annie

Coconuts and Kettlebells

3. High-Intensity Interval Training aka Sprint Work

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You may have heard this buzz word floating around the last few years as it’s gained a lot of popularity. HIIT is essentially putting in MAX amount of work for a short time (anywhere in between 20-60 seconds) and then resting for a longer period of time(60 seconds to a couple minutes), then repeat that cycle anywhere between 2-8 times. If that sounds broad, that's because it is. You can do HIIT style workouts on most ANY cardio machines, on the track, or with body weight exercises at home. The point is that you get your heart rate up during the 'work' and keep the body guessing with the variant times of work and rest.

Research has shown that doing a HIIT workout of just 5 rounds of sprints for 20 seconds in between 1 minutes of rest is MORE effective at increasing our VO2 max capacity (our aerobic capacity and oxygen-storing capabilities) than steady state running. That study ALSO showed it produces better glucose and fat oxidation that its steady rate cardio counterpart. Better benefits for WAYY less time? UM YES THANK YOU.

Research also shows that HIIT training is MORE beneficial for increasing insulin sensitivity and regulating blood sugar than longer 'moderate intensity' aerobic counterparts. Meaning, it is an extra excellent choice for anyone with PCOS, pre-diabetic, diabetes, or someone with a high fasting blood sugar/ unsteady blood sugar in general.  This in combination with a resistance training program is going to be as effective at managing blood sugar than a lot of prescription medicationsaccording to the CDC.  

Last but not least, I love choosing HIIT over steady state cardio because it gives me the aerobic benefits of lymphatic detoxification, heart rate training, and aerobic work without the chronic rise in cortisol that long-term cardio gives us (which I'll discuss lower in the article). MEANING, the same positive benefits with less of the negative side effects like adrenal burnout, low progesterone, and raised DHEA.  AND, it takes way less time. So WIN WIN.

You can use HIIT outside on a run, inside on any cardio-based machine, in Tabata formworkouts, or pretty much anything intense enough if you get creative. Have fun with it. The point here is short periods of INTENSE work in between rest periods. Don't push it, ladies. 

The WORST

1.Chronic Cardio

Now, how many of us prescribe to the mantra ‘more is better’ when it comes to exercise? That going for a 60-minute run is OBVIOUSLY better than a 30-minute run because, duh, you burn more calories.

Cmon, don't be shy.

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Thank you for your honesty. I will return the favor.

It’s wrong. IT'S ALL WRONG.

THEY WERE LYING TO US.

All those magazines and media frenzies that made us want to be cardio bunnies, that made us think the only good workout is one where you are sweating off alllll of last night's dessert, that made us think the longer on the treadmill, the better... THEY WERE WRONG. Not only were they wrong about steady state cardio being the optimal exercise for fat loss, but it can actually be HARMFUL to women's' health. 

Before we talk science, let's cover what classifies as chronic cardio: it is an AEROBIC activity where you exert the same amount of force over a longer period of time (I say any time over 30 minutes). For example: jogging on the treadmill, going for a long run, hitting the elliptical for 45 minutes, etc.

Now, before you freak out, let me be clear. I said a longer period of time. Meaning, no, what I'm about to say doesn't apply if you jog for 15 minutes to warm up. We're talking repetitive, CHRONIC, longer period cardio.The key is to do it for under 30 minutes, and/or to do longer workouts NOT VERY OFTEN.

So, training for a marathon where you are logging 30 miles a week with your running shoes and doing nothing else?

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Yup. Basically.

That's going to negatively affect your hormonal levels BIG TIME.

Heres why: 

For many ( read: ESPECIALLY WOMEN), chronic cardio raises our cortisol levels very high for prolonged periods of time. This constant pressure on the heart and adrenals cause the sympathetic nervous system to take over during and after your workout, causing your cortisol levels to be through the roof chronically.

Studies of Marathon and half-marathon runners that measured salivary cortisol levels show a dramatic increase in cortisol not only during the race but for hours to days after they had finished. This means that their body entered a highly stressed state during their workout and it was so harsh that it took up to a couple DAYS to recover. This is a major problem when you consider how many women go for long runs MULTIPLE DAYS PER WEEK and month. 

I talk about elevated cortisol levels HEREand HERE, but here are the most common side effects implicated in chronically elevated cortisol levels: 

  1. muscle degradation

  2. SLOWER METABOLISM (ironic since most people exercise to speed this up)

  3. suppressed immune function

  4. excess fat storage around the waistline

  5. bone loss

  6. low progesterone

  7. adrenal burnout

  8. thyroid dysfunction

  9. PCOS

  10. dysregulation of blood sugar

  11. hair loss

  12. hormonal acne

And those are just the most common...

As you can see, the irony is in women lacing  up their running shoes or hitting the elliptical thinking they are doing their body right after logging an hour worth of cardio, only to find out that they are actually HARMING their body and working against the very effects exercise is supposed to bring in the first place. 

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I know. It's a lot to take in...Keep reading, it will help.

Another reason I recommend the top 3 forms of exercise over chronic cardio is one that a lot of trainers and health magazines don't recognize: Exercise is stressor designed to stimulate adaption responses in our body. That is its purpose. What's important is we choose the kinds of exercise that have the adaptation responses WE WANT.  Unlike building muscle, which causes your body to ADAPT by speeding up your metabolism and stimulating detoxification pathways, chronic cardio has a different adaptation response: the more you run/elliptical--> the higher your cortisol hits--> the slower your metabolism becomes to compensate for the stressed state--> your body burns fewer calories at rest. Which adaptation response do you really want from your movement?

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See how clear the choice becomes when you look at the science and NOT fad exercise trends?

With strength training, for instance, you are building muscle which FUNDAMENTALLY CHANGES your body functioning. It increases your metabolism and has long-lasting effects on your body's ability to process and utilize calories. So it isn't just a 'calories out calories in' mathematical equation like in chronic cardio. When you are building muscle, it is 'work put in to make our metabolism more efficient long-term'. 

This is the phenomenon I explain to the COUNTLESS female runners that ask me why they have had to slowly increase their mileage to keep up with their sudden creeping weight gain and now felt like they had to be running for 60-90 minutes multiple times per week to stay the same size. 

This is because your body adapts, it is a beautiful thing. And if you are chronically stressing it out with hitting the cardio machines for hours a week, it will ADAPT by burning fewer calories at rest, slowing your metabolism, and storing fat because it thinks you are in a stressed famine state and are low on energy (food) sources. 

Don't be mad at your body, that is its job. 

Just stop listening to misguided diet magazines that tell you to hop on the treadmill for an hour, and instead go get under a barbell and/or de-stress on your yoga mat.

*Just to be clear, ALL forms of exercise raise cortisol levels. That is the natural function of your body. It becomes harmful when that rise in cortisol SURPASSES the beneficial threshold of the body and quickly turns to a degrading stressor. This is why I recommend HIIT as a cardio choice over regularly hopping on the treadmill for an hour. You get just enough of a rise in cortisol and aerobic benefits all in a fraction of the time so as not to tax your adrenals.  If you really love running and it brings you joy, my recommendation is to keep your regular runs under 35 minutes and include long runs less frequently. On top of this, engage regularly in yoga and meditation to lower cortisol levels and strength train supplementally to protect your bone health. 

2. Anything you hate doing

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Here's the kicker, you can read my article and see all the science behind resistance training and yoga and walking and HIIT and think 'I HAVE to do that'. 

Which is cool, I really recommend you give all of those a proper chance. However, if at the end of the day, you really hate squatting with a barbell... it's NOT WORTH DOING IT.

Really. My recommendation would be to find something different that you enjoy that has the same adaption response. If you don't like yoga, still try to practice meditation and deep breathing to get the same cortisol lowering effects. If you don't like the barbell, try free weights or resistance bands. If you don't like the gym, try something like home workouts with body weight, or circuit training, so you still get the benefits of resistance training without the things you don't like.

If you are stressing every time you workout because you hate it so much, that will incur a rise in cortisol that is NOT beneficial to the body and could be undoing the beneficial effects of your workout in the first place. 

FIND WHAT YOU LOVE. 

Because, ultimately, the best exercise you can do for your body with long-term sustainable results is one that you love. 

3. Any workout that disrespects your limits

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Any kind of exercise, I repeat, ANY KIND OF EXERCISE can turn harmful if done too much or with a damaging mindset. 

I love lifting weights and have seen so many positive benefits from lifting regularly, but I have also experienced the turn in benefits to consequences when I push my body past its limits or try to overload my system when I am already stressed out. 

If you are going through a really stressful life event, are recovering from an eating disorder, hypothalamic amenorrhea, a hormonal imbalance, or are trying to heal your relationship with your body or get pregnant,  then it is EXTRA important to be mindful of your limits and the sensitive state your body is in. My recommendation for most everyone is to have the foundation of your movement be restorative (like yoga and walking), then add weight training 2-3x per week and HIIT 1-2x per week IF YOU FEEL UP TO IT.

Less is more when it comes to intense exercise. And if we push our bodies past what they can handle, then not only are we missing the beneficial effects of our movements, but we are incurring damage along the way. 

Overexercising can cause

  1. Thyroid dysfunction

  2. adrenal burnout

  3. insomnia

  4. slower metabolism

  5. hair loss

  6. hormonal acne

  7. mood swings

  8. loss of period

  9. HORMONAL IMBALANCES

Notice that last one. The most important thing to know above all else, even more important than WHICH exercise you do, is to RESPECT YOUR LIMITS. No matter what you are doing, tune in when the body says NO, then LISTEN.  

Live Whole, 

JESS