We all know exercise has many benefits. Some of these include increased muscle mass, reduced body fat, lower blood pressure, decreased ‘bad’ cholesterol and blood fat. Exercise can also reduce the risk of other physical illnesses and improve mental health.

Overall, the more physically active we are, the more resilient the human body is to coping with the stresses of daily life. What is becoming more evident, is the positive impact being physically active can have whilst living with a thyroid disorder.

Unfortunately, debilitating symptoms such as fatigue, aching muscles or low mood can sometimes make exercise seem like an unrealistic goal when living with a thyroid disorder. The good news is that increasing activity levels, and eventually reaching recommended physical activity levels,* can be easier than it may seem. So how do you break this vicious circle and increase exercise levels?

Tips for getting started

It is important to start with what you feel you are capable of. Whilst exercise may feel uncomfortable at first, it is important not to be put off by this as your body will adjust long-term and you get used to the feelings you have when exercising.

  • Take advice – if you haven’t exercised for a while, or have never exercised at all, it is understandable you may feel worried about making your symptoms worse. We would recommend you take advice from your GP or from a trained exercise referral fitness instructor about what activities are safe for you. Ensure you mention your thyroid disorder and other health conditions so they can take these into account. For example, if you have hyperthyroidism, you may feel out of breath sooner, sweat more and your heart rate may rise quicker. It is therefore important to take things steady whilst your hyperthyroidism is being treated.

  • Pace yourself – you don’t need to embark on a rigorous exercise programme in order to reap the benefits. In fact, many people give up exercising as they have pushed themselves too hard. Start with manageable goals which may include walking for up to 30 minutes per day and build these up over time before adding in some resistance exercise. As your strength and fitness levels improve, you will then be able to gradually increase your physical activity levels.
  • Redefine ‘exercise’ – many of us associate the word ‘exercise’ with strenuous physical activity, such as running. However, any form of exercise can be beneficial to our health, from taking a stroll to climbing the stairs instead of taking the lift. Activity which provides resistance to muscles, such as gardening, is also very beneficial. If you start looking at exercise in this way, it may help it seem less daunting. It might also be sensible to buy a step-counter. These can help you work towards your goals by tracking your physical activity levels.

  • What do you enjoy doing? – you are far more likely to carry on exercising if you are doing something you like. If the gym is not for you, activities such as dancing, cycling, swimming or tennis are all excellent ways to gain the vast health benefits of exercise and boost endorphin levels. Is there a hobby you used to enjoy that you could take up again? If you are stuck for inspiration, your local recreation or sports centre will offer a wide programme of activities.

Tips for sticking with it

  • Get assistance from a qualified exercise specialist/personal trainer if you can. They will have vast knowledge and experience and may have worked with somebody with a similar story to you in the past. They will give you a programme tailored to your needs and goals.

  • Find an exercise partner – not only will exercising with a partner or in a group encourage you to stick at things, you will probably also benefit from increased social interaction. This, in turn, can help to boost your mood and overcome the feelings of isolation, which can be experienced by people living with thyroid disorders.
  • Build exercise into your day – finding the time to exercise can often be a barrier to continuing with a new exercise regime. If you don’t have enough time in your day to set aside a chunk of time for exercise, why not consider squeezing in short blocks of activity? For example, could you fit in five minutes of stretching after getting up in the morning or perhaps ten minutes at lunchtime to go for a walk? Breaking exercise down into more manageable time blocks, may encourage you to stick with it. This will help you reach your ultimate fitness goal; ideally 30 minutes per day, five times per week.

  • Take time to rest and recover – although this is obvious, this is something we often forget to do. Build in rest time to allow any stiff or aching joints to recover. Remember eating a balanced diet, following the food NHS Eatwell guide, is the best way to fuel your body to exercise and to recover from exercise; helping you to become stronger.

Common questions and complaints

  • I feel tired and very low. I just don’t have the energy to get through the day, let alone exercise
Exercise improves the ability of the heart to deliver oxygen-rich blood around the body. Other benefits include increased muscle mass, stronger bones and soft tissues, improved lung function, concentration, decreased stress and higher calorie usage. All of these functions provide a stimulus that the body can use to actually improve energy levels. This can improve energy and also boost mood through promoting endorphin release.
  • I’ve tried exercising but I just can’t shift the weight

We know that weight gain can be a frustrating symptom of some thyroid disorders. Whilst exercise does not guarantee weight loss (as it can be influenced by many factors, not just exercise levels), it does improve the body’s ability to use more calories due to muscle being highly metabolically active and raising the metabolic rate, both during and after exercise. The health benefits of increased activity levels are the priority and have positive long-term effects.

About the author

Joe Straw, has congenital hypothyroidism and a BSc in physical activity, sport science and health. Joe is also a qualified personal trainer, exercise referral and cancer rehabilitation exercise instructor. He has also participated in sports such as boxing, fell running and triathlons. Joe has researched physical activity and hypothyroidism, gathering evidence in a recent study showing a higher quality of life in those with hypothyroidism who reach the recommended guidelines than those with hypothyroidism who do not. He furthered this research with an exercise intervention study in summer 2020 as part of his postgraduate studies.

* World Health Organisation 2020 guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behaviour (bmj.com)

More information on living with thyroid disorders is available here. Many patients also find our network of volunteer telephone contacts and local support groups a valuable resource.


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