“Your genetics loads the gun. Your lifestyle pulls the trigger.” - A quote by either Mehmet Oz or Barbara O’Neill, but regardless of who said it first, it is the perfect metaphor when talking about exercise and hormones.
What you do, what you eat, your thoughts and emotions, your environment - they all affect your body. In fact, studies show that genes only explain 50% of your weight, yet we blame our hormones for our weight gain, lean tissue and bone loss, and chronic inflammation. We rarely blame our diet, lack of consistent exercise, or ineffective type and intensity of training, stress levels or toxic environment.
As a female in her early 50s, a health coach and fitness professional, I can’t tell you how often I hear about the struggles of hormones. I experience firsthand some of the mire of gender and age, but I also experience some resolution through exercise selection and a whole food-based diet.
Our children were raised to “control what you can control - attitude and effort,” which translates to your own choices. But how do you know what choices to make? What will give you the most hormonal balance bang for your buck? These are questions that only add to the stress, which contribute to the hormonal domino effect.
As we age, some tissues become less sensitive to their controlling hormone. The amount of hormones produced may also change; some hormones decrease, some do not change, and some increase with age. You can’t focus on one because they are all designed to work together in a harmonious systematic flow. Too much attention on one might take away from others, or maybe one is “off” only because the one you’re not focusing on is struggling.
If you approach it as “use it or lose it, or use it to use it” with your lifestyle choices, then you can have the peace of mind, knowing that you are doing everything you can to maintain balance and health, and regardless of how bad things are, it would be worse if you didn’t.
Let’s take a look at a few of the hormones that are some heavy hitters and how they can be positively affected by exercise:
Human Growth Hormone (GH) is a small protein made by the pituitary gland and secreted into the bloodstream. GH production is controlled by a complex set of hormones produced in the hypothalamus of the brain and in the intestinal tract and pancreas. In people of all ages, GH boosts protein production, promotes the utilization of fat, interferes with the action of insulin, and raises blood sugar levels. GH also raises levels of insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) and is one of the hormones that production decreases with age.*
GH levels fluctuate throughout the day and are highest at night while sleeping. Exercise, both aerobic and resistance, increase GH release, but is transient, so consistently repeating bouts every 24 hours will have the greatest effect.
The intensity of aerobic exercise should be greater than lactate threshold (which is the maximal effort a person can sustain for an extended period of time, often expressed as 85% max heart rate).
Resistance training is a little less cut and dry, but compound movements (movements that involve more than one joint) are most effective, with 2-3 sets of 10-12 reps and 1-3 minutes of rest between sets. Combining aerobic and resistance also has a positive impact.
Cortisol – the “fight or flight” hormone, as with GH, also naturally fluctuates throughout the day with it being highest in the morning and decreasing during the day. However, with people who work at night, the cycle shifts. This hormone isn’t affected by age as much as lifestyle, with diet and stress being the two main contributors to its increase.
Almost every cell has receptors for cortisol, so it has lots of different actions depending on the cell that it is acting on. It is important for metabolizing glucose, reducing inflammation, controlling blood pressure, regulating salt and water balance, influencing memory, and preparing your body to naturally respond to stress.
Problems arise when we are chronically high in cortisol; it can wreak havoc on all tissues and increase the risk of heart disease, digestive problems, sleep disturbances, headaches, memory and concentration impairment, anxiety, depression, weight gain, overeating and obesity. Stress and high glycemic foods are the top contributors to overproducing cortisol.
Regular exercise is a key factor in reducing cortisol levels, although exercise itself causes an increased release of cortisol, with the type and intensity dictating the amount. Other “relaxing hormones” or “happy hormones” are released with exercise and can not only help to reduce cortisol production throughout the day but also give you the positive mental boost that can shift you into a more peaceful mindset.
Physical activity helps increase the production of your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters - endorphins, dopamine and serotonin. Endorphins are released in response to pain and stress and help to alleviate anxiety and depression. Dopamine plays a major role in the motivational component of reward-motivated behavior. By increasing dopamine levels, self-doubt and procrastination decrease and enthusiasm increases. Serotonin helps you to feel significant and important, so if you’re experiencing feelings of loneliness or depression, get some aerobic exercise, as studies show that it stimulates the greatest production and release.
However, if yoga is more your jam, anything helps. The release of these little gems of goodness are also increased with practicing gratitude, so ending your day with some positive reflection and appreciation is a significant life-saving act.
Now let’s get more into some gender specific hormones. With aging comes a loss of physical function, increase in abdominal fat, a loss of skeletal muscle and a loss of bone. In men, “beginning around the age of 35-40 years, circulating testosterone concentration levels decrease by approximately 1%-3% per year. “The most obvious clinical signs of relative deficiency in older men are a decrease in muscle mass and strength, a decrease in bone mass, and an increase in central body fat.”
For women, menopause is associated with a natural decline in estrogen, which increases visceral fat mass, decreases bone mass density, muscle mass and strength. We can’t stop the clock, but we can certainly choose to slow down the effects and reduce the impact.
“Aging also mediates cellular changes in muscle, decreasing the actual muscle mass. The detrimental effects of aging on muscle have been shown to be restrained or even reversed with regular resistance exercise. Resistance exercise also improves the connective tissue harness surrounding muscle, thus being most beneficial for injury prevention and in physical rehabilitation therapy.”#
For muscular strength, apply the overload principle with 8–12 repetitions of 1–3 sets, 2-3 training sessions per week. Generally, linear exercises that involve multiple muscle groups are preferred for increasing total-body strength. Because of the heavy loads (only able to lift between 8–12 times), beginners should progress into this type of training over several weeks.
With this type of training muscle recovery takes about 72 hours, and with multiple sets more recovery time between sets within the workout might be needed. If time is an issue, simply stick with one quality set, or split your training so you are working different muscle groups throughout the week; i.e., push-workouts 2 times per week and pull-workouts 2 times per week, or upper body days and lower body days.
Resistance training that adds muscle mass is key, although you won’t have the same results as you would have in your 20s. The more lean tissue you have, the more testosterone and estrogen your body can produce. In addition, strength training places a load on the bones to help build their strength and/or prevent loss.
All of this requires effort, discipline and maybe a little more research on your part. It’s challenging when you feel like you’re a “lost cause,” or it’s too late for you. Add to that the fact that it will take time to see any changes, and the changes might just be that you aren’t feeling worse.
It’s hard to not just wallow in hormonal self-pity. But you don’t have to take it; show your body by making it act like you want to be good at things. You don’t want it to “forget” how to produce, respond or function. And it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing approach, if all you have time for in a day is to spend a few minutes appreciating things in your life then you’ve done well. And, what can you do tomorrow that is just a little more? Time to pull the trigger.