Can Regular Exercise Help to Balance Hormones?
We all exercise for various reasons. Some exercise for aesthetics, some for health, some just because it makes them feel good. And some, for all of the above reasons! But can regular exercise actually help us fight our skin issues - by keeping our hormones in check?
Yes, exercise can help you lose your love handles, but it’s the loss of excess fat deep inside the body that counts here.
The body contains two types of fat. The one you can pinch (subcutaneous), that is fairly harmless, but stubborn and hard to get rid of, and the less-visible stuff, the visceral fat that pads the abdominal organs, which can be a killer. Literally. Visceral fat is sometimes referred to as "active fat" due to its distinctive role in affecting our hormones. A relatively good indicator of visceral fat is to take a waistline measurement. Harvard University notes around 10% of our total fat is likely to be stored as visceral fat, therefore if you are carrying higher amounts of body fat than is recommended, it is therefore more likely that you are also storing more visceral fat than is healthy.
Fat cells do more than simply store extra calories — they have proved to be much more involved in human physiology than we had previously thought. Research suggests that fat cells — particularly abdominal fat cells — are biologically active. It's appropriate to think of fat as its own endocrine organ or gland, producing hormones and other substances that can profoundly affect our health. Although scientists are still deciphering the roles of individual hormones, it's becoming clear that excess body fat, especially abdominal fat, disrupts the normal balance and functioning of these hormones.
Getting fit can help to balance the body’s sex hormone levels, which in turn can improve the appearance of hair, skin and muscle tone. Although the most studied hormones linked to exercise are endorphins, sex hormones are also largely affected.
Much research has shown that being overweight or obese increases a woman’s risk of being diagnosed with hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer. Doctors don't completely understand why extra fat is associated with higher hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer risk, but it’s likely that extra body fat increases levels of estrogen and other hormones which then increase breast cancer risk.
Research has shown that the level of human growth hormone (our fountain of youth) tends to decrease with greater accumulation of fat around our midsection. Testosterone is also found to be elevated with an increase in visceral fat. Scientists from the University of Virginia Health System found high levels of androgens (male hormones) in obese girls in the early stages of puberty, increasing their risk of more severe health problems (like polycystic ovary syndrome) later in life.
Another study further supports the link between excess weight and higher hormone levels; the study found that estrogen and testosterone levels dropped quite a bit, to healthier levels, when overweight and obese women lost weight. The results were published online May 21, 2012 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.
Studies have also shown that the sex lives of fit 60- and 70-year-olds often resemble the sex lives of people decades younger. This is due to healthy and consistent hormone levels. Not too low, not too high.
Since excess body fat is linked to hormonal changes, including those of serotonin, galanin and other brain neurotransmitters, excess body fat can also negatively impact your mood.
A 2014 study conducted by Boston University School of Medicine found that depressive symptoms are associated with visceral adiposity in middle-aged adults. After adjusting for age, body mass index, smoking, alcohol and other factors, results showed that higher levels of stored VAT translated to higher likelihood of experiencing depression.
Depression is especially associated with greater fat storage in women, so it might be even more crucial for women to follow a depression-free diet. In a study of middle-aged women over 50 years old, visceral fat, but not subcutaneous belly fat or waist circumference, was related to depressive symptoms, the result of affected mood-sensitive hormones.
More than other types of fats, visceral fat is also thought to play a large role in insulin resistance, which means a heightened risk for developing diabetes. But insulin resistance also plays a role in our skin health. Insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas, is important for the regulation of carbohydrates and the metabolism of fat. Insulin stimulates glucose (sugar) uptake from the blood in tissues such as muscles, the liver and fat. This is an important process to make sure that energy is available for everyday functioning and to maintain normal levels of circulating glucose. In a person who is obese, or with large amounts of visceral fat, insulin signals are sometimes lost and tissues are no longer able to control glucose levels. This can lead to the development of type II diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
Because of the effects of excess visceral fat on hormones, it can also fuel low-grade inflammation in the body, and is tied to various ills including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, colon cancer, breast cancer and dementia. Inflammation in the body also affects our skin negatively. Visceral fat does more than just lead to inflammation down the road — it becomes inflamed itself by producing something known as interleukin-6, a type of inflammatory molecule. This kind of fat stores inflammatory white blood cells and kicks off a series of autoimmune reactions.
What Does This Mean?
Regular exercise trains the body to burn visceral fat more efficiently. Exercise attacks fat on several fronts. When you exercise regularly, your body makes more mitochondria, the cellular engines where aerobic metabolism takes place; it also produces more proteins to speed up the transportation of fatty acids into cells to be burned as energy; and it makes more enzymes that break down fat. Enzymes regulate the speed at which chemical reactions take place. So the more enzymes you have, the faster visceral fat can be burned.
Exercise researchers agree that the benefits of improved fitness are a boon to virtually every system in our bodies. And any kind of regular activity will help you experience more of these benefits for yourself. Most people think exercise is only about burning calories, but it’s so much more than that. Exercise is about a million small perks, like stress management, better sleep and an overall healthy body. And they all add up to a more radiant, gorgeous you. Remember, fitness is intensity-dependent, so a short bouts of high intensity cardio like sprints will do much more for your health than long bouts of medium-intensity cardio like running.