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Thyroid conditions — exercise dos and don'ts

Having a thyroid condition can make exercise feel daunting. Our dos and don’ts show you how you can safely keep active.

Having a thyroid condition can make working out more challenging. Both an underactive and overactive thyroid can affect the body’s ability to regulate mood, energy levels, temperature, and heart rate, all of which can make it harder to exercise. This is sometimes true even after thyroid treatment.

But there is good news. Though exercise can’t cure a thyroid condition, it can alleviate common symptoms including low energy, anxiety, trouble sleeping, weight gain, and depression. 

Knowing how and where to start can be overwhelming, so we’ve put together some dos and don’ts to get you moving safely again. 

1. Do speak to your doctor and make sure your treatment is working

Before embarking on any fitness journey, the first step is to make sure that your thyroid is as well controlled as it can be. When starting or changing the dose of any thyroid treatment, there is often a period of flux before your hormone levels stabilise. It’s important to be patient and take things easy during this stage otherwise you may put yourself at risk. For example, if your thyroxine levels are too high, your heart rate may reach unsafe levels during heavy exercise.

Speak to your doctor and ask them when it’s safe for you to start moderate exercise. In the meantime, light exercise as outlined below is a safe alternative to keep you moving. 

You can make sure your thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) levels are normal with our Thyroid Function Blood Test.

2. Don’t rush

If you’ve just been diagnosed with a thyroid condition or are new to exercise, it’s important to start slowly to recognise your limits. You can always build upwards from here.

If you have an overactive thyroid, you may sweat more, feel out of breath sooner, and your heart rate may rise more quickly. With an underactive thyroid, you may find your energy levels deplete faster than usual. 

For that reason, low-impact, gentle activity is the perfect place to start such as:

  • Yoga or Pilates — Both offer a combination of strength, flexibility, and balance. Some studios may also offer practices specifically designed for thyroid care. 
  • Walking — Walking is a safe, low-impact option you can do almost anywhere. If you feel ready to push yourself a little further, walk a longer distance, or increase your pace. 
  • Resistance bands — Resistance bands are a gentler way of building strength without having to lift weights. They can work many different muscle groups and you can increase the resistance when you’re ready for a challenge.
  • Tai Chi — Tai Chi combines deep breathing and relaxation with flowing movements. It’s great for reducing stress, improving low mood, and developing balance and leg strength.
  • Water aerobics — If you have swelling in your ankles or feet, some traditional exercises may be painful. Water aerobics lowers the impact on your joints. 
  • Exercise bike — Cycling is perfect for building cardiovascular fitness and leg strength. Using an exercise bike means you can start with low resistance and take breaks as and when you need them.

3. Don't forget to stretch

People with thyroid conditions often experience muscle and joint pain [1]. Before putting your muscles and joints through any stress, it’s worth warming them up with some gentle stretching exercises. 

Use mindful stretching as a way of detecting any problem areas that you might want to be careful of when you’re exercising. Being mindful means really tuning in and listening to your body. Take it slow and use the opportunity to identify any tightness or niggles. 

4. Do introduce a mix of strength training and cardiovascular fitness

If not well controlled, thyroid conditions can increase your risk of cardiovascular problems. An untreated underactive thyroid can cause high cholesterol, increasing your risk of heart disease [2]. An overactive thyroid is more likely to increase your risk of rhythm problems or heart failure [3]. For this reason, and for the many other benefits it provides, it’s worth including gentle aerobic exercise to keep your heart as healthy as possible. 

Including resistance-type or strength training is also important when you feel able to do so. Thyroid conditions can affect the muscles, leading to muscle weakness, termed myopathy [4]. As you start treatment, and your thyroid hormones return to normal, this process will likely reverse. But you can help this process along by gradually building up muscle strength. 

Strength training will also reduce your risk of developing weakened bones (osteoporosis), which is more common if you’ve had an overactive thyroid for a prolonged period or an overtreated underactive thyroid [3]. 

5. Do consider a personal trainer or exercise partner

Staying motivated is hard, especially if your thyroid condition affects your mood or energy levels. If you can, get help from a qualified exercise specialist or personal trainer. Let them know about your condition so they can offer you a programme tailored to your needs and capability. Again, make sure your thyroid hormones are in check and you have the thumbs up from your doctor before starting a programme. 

Another option is to exercise with a friend. Sometimes external accountability is enough to boost motivation and morale. Thyroid UK has a huge online thyroid community which you may find a helpful resource of inspiration to share exercise tips. 

6. Do take time to rest and recover

If your thyroid is leaving you feeling drained, it can be hard to know whether to push through or to treat it as your body’s way of telling you to rest. 

Try keeping a diary of your energy levels out of ten — with time, you’ll start to realise where your limits lie. For example, a five out of ten might be fine for you to exercise so long as it’s light. On the other hand, you might learn that exercising when your energy levels are only a two out of ten is likely to leave you washed out for the rest of the day. 

Thyroid conditions and exercise

There’s no need to be afraid about exercising with a thyroid condition, especially once your thyroid hormone levels have normalised. So long as you take things slowly and take advice from your doctor, it’s a great way to improve some of the symptoms of your condition and improve your overall health. 

We have a comprehensive thyroid health hub for more information on thyroid health, from diagnosing and managing a thyroid condition to thyroid-friendly diets.


References 

  1. Fariduddin, M. M., Bansal N. 2021. Hypothyroid Myopathy. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK519513/
  2. NHS. 2021. Underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) - Complications. [online] Available at: <https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/underactive-thyroid-hypothyroidism/complications/> [Accessed 17 March 2022].
  3. NHS. 2019. Overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism) - Complications. [online] Available at: <https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/overactive-thyroid-hyperthyroidism/complications/> [Accessed 17 March 2022].
  4. Duyff, R., 2000. Neuromuscular findings in thyroid dysfunction: a prospective clinical and electrodiagnostic study. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, 68(6), pp.750-755.