Exercising with Hypothyroidism: My Reality is Not My “Excuse”

“I am EXHAUSTED,” I told my lovely mother-in-law as I flopped onto our couch, red-faced, sweaty, and droopy-eyed; she was here to pick up her dog, who we often watch for a few days a week so he doesn’t go crazy with boredom during this extended COVID-quarantine.

I’d just finished a thirty minute dance routine work-out–relatively low impact, but still cardio–and all I wanted to do was pass the hell out at 5:30 p.m. I wasn’t quite narcoleptic at that point, but I knew I was in for a sluggish evening.

Tired? Aren’t you jazzed and energized from all that dancing?” she asked, since she’d seen me clumsily bouncing and spinning in a tired circle through the front window. “Exercise always gets me going!”

I laughed in reply; I have had this conversation more times and with more people than I can count.

Exercise drains me; it does not energize me.

Cue the chorus of well-meaning, misunderstanding advice.

It’s only been within the last year that I’ve really accepted that the way I feel during and after many work-outs isn’t normal. I used to agonizingly wake up and go to Jazzercise at 5 a.m, then feel like absolute death warmed over the rest of the day, only to want to crawl into bed at like 6 p.m. I did the Zombies, Run! program and managed to make myself run one or two miles straight–but what the hell were runners even talking about when they mentioned “runner’s high”? Every second was agony.

At the time, I thought I was just out of shape. That it would take time for workouts to make me feel better. It turns out, the kind of exercise I thought I needed was actually contributing to the cause—not the solution—of my next-level fatigue, and because I was untreated for my disorder, was actually dangerous.

As I write this, I am foggy-brained and burnt out from the ten minutes of a dance routine I tried out today because today’s twenty-five minutes of gentle yoga was a little too gentle. I stopped when I realized I was getting foggy. My muscles can keep going thanks to inflammation-inducing, handy-dandy cortisol—it’s my brain that will be toast for a little while. And if I really push it, I’ll think sticky thoughts for an entire day or two… and that is WITH medication.

God/dess help a thyroid sufferer if you push too hard without meds (whether you are hyper or hypothyroid, you NEED meds). In fact, “Conversely, an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormones, slowing down your metabolism and your heart rate. Because of this, exercise can be hard on your heart if your thyroid hormones aren’t well-controlled.” If you even THINK you have a thyroid disorder, are not being treated, and experience symptoms, you need to PUSH YOUR DOCTOR(S) HARD TO GET THIS CONTROLLED.

Don’t die in the name of getting your body “beach ready”.

Why? Intense exercise burns your circulating stores of T3, essentially the fuel you need to stoke your mitochondrial fire (this is my faux-sciencey, bastardized/romanticized sense of how your metabolism works with a thyroid disorder, but it’s based in science and you get the idea). It sends cortisol flowing through your system, and your body doesn’t react to exercise like a healthy body. It does not. It cannot.

A normal person with a fully functional thyroid will, at the request of our lovely pituitary glands, start cranking out hormones as they exercise to replace what hormones they are burning. It’s largely a positive thing. By the time they’re done, and with enough bodily practice and cardiovascular health, they will feel great.

Yes, I am jealous that their reality is vastly different from mine. But, if I wish in one hand, spit in the other—which one fills up first?

I, meanwhile, am pretty much totally reliant on my little pill of T4, which my body (luckily) will (eventually) convert to T3. However, that process takes time to build enough T3 kindling to eventually light my energy fire, and there isn’t enough adrenaline in the world to replace it.

With every round of high-intensity exercise, I drain my energy reserves and up my cortisol levels, and if I don’t pay close enough attention to my slowing, sluggish thoughts, I will pay for it in productivity, happiness, and well-being for hours or even days: “One research study found that the level of active thyroid hormone, T3, decreases drastically at an exercise intensity of 70% of your max heart rate and stays low for 24 hours or more after your workout.” Hmmmmmm.

This isn’t an excuse to be inactive, but it also makes me want to punch certain well-known, popular fitness coaches right in the face for how their programs made me feel when I tried it their way, over and over, not sure why my burning motivation never matched the energy I was expecting–and repeatedly failing–to find. The message, “Be stronger than your excuses,” is meant for healthy people and was extremely damaging–and, as they advertise in any fitness program, I had actually seen my doctor. He’d TOLD me to exercise more, that I was perfectly fine. More reasons to keep harassing your doctor or switch to a different one entirely if you’re suffering hypothyroid symptoms.

A hypothyroid reality does not mean we should forgo exercise entirely; however, it does mean that I need to modify how I exercise and pay more attention to how I feel in the moment—and STOP when it’s too much. “Pushing through” the pain (as so many trainers suggest) is a recipe to put your thyroid life on hold for several days, even weeks as the dread of how you will feel the next time you try again drags down your morale and eats away at your soul.

Popular fitness quotes are NASTY when you have Hashimoto’s. Talk to yourself kindly.

And then you will find yourself starting at day one. Over and over and over, a little less motivated, a little more frustrated, and if you’re like me, a lot more angry with yourself for your “laziness”.

So, I’ve been a lot nicer to myself lately. I’ve shifted my inner dialogue and promised myself to do what I can. And I am stronger, more fit, and thinner than I have been in YEARS. I have an actual bicep and my shoulders have definition! I can touch my toes and do real push-ups from my TOES not my KNEES! And, perhaps the biggest success of all, I am actually starting to feel better because of exercise instead of worse.

There are days I actually work out because I finally know I will feel better if I do.

So what’s working for me as I navigate this hypothyroid life?

1. Gentle yoga is LIFE.
And I mean gentle. I used to take hour-long yoga classes and force myself, shaking and bleary-eyed, to hold basic positions. I got nowhere, had to recover for what felt like forever, and I generally felt awful. When I pushed myself too hard, it meant I was always starting over. It reinforced my inner narrative that I was just a lazy motherfucker.

Ensue self-hate spiral.

However, today I finished day 21 of Yoga with Adriene’s “Home”. I feel GREAT. Currently, her older programs are too intense for me to get through without totally depleting my energy reserves, though I am hopeful that may change as I develop more muscle, which, in theory, should boost my metabolism. While the first one is lengthier, the usual twenty-five to thirty minutes of stretching and body weight exercise has been absolutely wonderful. I am gradually building strength, muscle, and flexibility, so that I’m able to do more, longer. I can feel my body actually having the space and time to become more efficient with the hormones I DO have.

But it’s taken me over two months to do 21 days of yoga (and some mixed in dance when I feel particularly energetic), because:

2. Rest days are KEY when you have a thyroid disorder.

Honestly, working out every day is simple for normal people; if you are healthy, you simply ask yourself, “Did I work out today?” and if the answer is no… well, better fit it in. GO.

However, Because my dose of T4 suggests my thyroid is pretty much toast, I HAVE to give my body time to build up new stores of T3–my thyroid won’t just make these hormones on-demand, no matter how much my pituitary gland demands it. If yours is still somewhat functional, you may find you don’t need to take a day or two of rest between each of your workouts–but if you find yourself needing that time? Be nice to yourself. This is the only wonderful body that will ever carry you, and how wonderful it is that there are things we can do to strengthen it.

3. If you talk the thyroid talk, walk the walk. I love, love, LOVE my Fitbit. Simply taking my dogs on three leisurely, fifteen-minute walks a day gets me close to 7K steps. Add some general cleaning or moving, and boom, there’s my 10K steps a day–and I feel better. Doing more positive, calm, anaerobic exercises allows my stored T4 from my pills to continue to be converted steadily; I rarely put myself into a raging deficit of T3 these days, keep my cortisol levels low, and need far less time to recover: “Anaerobic exercise was more beneficial than aerobic exercise in alleviating symptoms.” “You run a lower risk of undoing the thyroid & adrenal healing progress you’ve made by completing an anaerobic workout. That’s not to say an anaerobic workout can’t set you back, but that likelihood is lower. “

Where do I go from here?

I’m still figuring out my cardio workouts. Reality: I need to figure them out for my heart health.

Some people with Hashimoto’s have experienced success with HIIT, and I do believe that if I can gradually build my heart’s aerobic health, I will become more efficient with the T3 I do have.

But, baby steps and kindness. Short, focused sessions, no longer than ten minutes of moderate to high-intensity aerobic exercise are my next step.

So, to all the damaging, popular work-out programs out there–I am stronger than my excuses; my body just requires different things than your body. You wouldn’t tell someone with a prosthetic foot to “just keep running” as they developed sores. You’d insist on rest.

Just because I physically cannot work out every single day at a crazy high intensity doesn’t make me weak, doesn’t make me unmotivated, doesn’t make my very real problem an excuse; just because you cannot see my condition does not invalidate it. Just because I do not run weekly marathons (which, by the way, isn’t exactly good for your joints or actual health in the long run–moderation is key!), does not make me lazy.

If you feel like DEATH at the end of your workout, something. is. wrong. Also, fuck “motivational workout quotes” when you have a thyroid condition—do exercise that works for YOU, be it walking, stretching, gentle movements, whatever. Any gentle exercise is better than no exercise, but you do NOT need to harm yourself in the process–physically, emotionally, or spiritually.

If I wanted, could I have the sculpted, lean beach body look with Hashimoto’s?

Absolutely. It would take a lot longer and considerably more effort and attention to diet, but it’s definitely possible. Fortunately, I LOVE my curves at any size and enjoy cooking positively decadent dishes, so that’s not my goal.

My goal is to lead a healthy, pain-free, energetic life so I can spend as much time loving my incredible family for as long as possible. I am not a cold, unfeeling statue, but rather a living, loving, fiery, passionate individual—I don’t need to look like a sculpture to find incredible joy, nor is that “sculpted” look a measure of true health.

Cheers to joyfully loving (and living!) your intentional, best life, no matter what trials you may face.

If you have a thyroid condition, I recommend reading this guide. It is brilliant and full of advice that resonates. Additional resources on this subject can be found here, here, or here (but take everything with a grain of salt and talk to your doctor, preferably a recently-graduated endocrinologist who actually listens to you, before randomly taking any form supplements–really. You can and should get a blood test to diagnose and address any true deficiencies).

Xoxo, Sarah

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