The Hormonal Effects of Exercise



Most of us exercise because we want to look better. It’s not that we’re vain, but losing some flab around the butt or packing mass onto our pecs makes us feel more confident and proud to live inside our bodies. Yet, though we may not realize it, the greatest benefit of regular exercise is that it positively affects our hormones, which results in some pretty amazing internal changes.

The Importance of Hormones

Your hormonal system controls everything that goes on in your body. It regulates your blood sugar – if it’s either too high or too low, then your hormones are out of balance. It also controls your bowel function. Constipation and irritable bowel syndrome are both related to hormone regulation. It even controls your body-weight. If you’re one of those people who puts on weight just by looking at food, it’s a sign that your hormonal system is unbalanced. It’s the same thing if you continually eat but cannot gain weight.

Hormones regulate cellular activity. They either stimulate or they block certain reactions. They are also used to repair and rebuild muscle cells and are closely related to energy production.

The hormonal system is profoundly affected by exercise. In fact, every time you work out, you are positively affecting at least 18 different hormones. Exercise stimulates growth hormone. It also stimulates tissue growth, which helps to slow down the aging process. In addition, exercise initiates the hormonal process which mobilizes fatty acids as a sources of extra energy, stimulating fat breakdown and helping to balance blood sugar levels.

The Endocrine System and Exercise

The endocrine system is responsible for releasing hormones from glands into the body’s circulation. These hormones act on specific receptors to perform a number of functions during and after exercise. These include:

  • Regulating cell metabolism
  • Facilitating the cardiovascular response to exercise
  • Facilitating the transportation of hormones, such as insulin, cross cell membranes
  • Modulating protein synthesis to repair muscle after exercise

Any time you exercise, you change the structure of your cells. Hormones are required to help the body make these changes.

Short Term and Long Term Hormonal Responses

The initial changes brought on by exercise are neural adaptations. The body will learn to use more motor units more effectively and to recruit more muscle fibers. These are short term adaptations that are controlled by the nervous system.

Long term adaptations require that your cells develop receptor sites that are able to cling onto the increased levels of hormones that are produced by the exercise. This takes time.

As a result of the needs for cells to develop receptor sites to uptake the increased flow of hormones produced by exercise, the longer you have been exercising the more efficient your body becomes at utilizing the hormones that are stimulated by exercise.

Specific Hormonal Responses


Exercise stimulates endorphins, which are hormones that stop pain. Exercise is well regarded as one of the most powerful antidepressants due to its ability to stimulate endorphin release. It also stimulates the hormone that secretes thyroid as well as prolactin, which is the hormone that helps breastfeeding mothers to produce milk.

Stress Hormones

We all know that exercise is a great stress releaser. The reason is that it boosts the release of two key stress releasing hormones:

  • Epinephrine
  • Nor-epinephrine

These hormones help the central nervous system and the brain work properly to help manage stress. In addition, nor-epinephrine cranks up our fat burning system so that we burn calories quicker. The best way to get norepinephrine coursing through the body is by way of an intense cardio workout.


Another hormone that is stimulated by exercise is vasopressin, which controls water secretion from the kidneys. People who suffer from water retention, as evidenced by puffy fingers and eyes and swollen feet, will find that regular exercise will help to get this under control.

Pituitary and Adrenals

The pituitary gland is the master control gland in the brain. It works in conjunction with the hypothalamus to control the body. Exercise heightens the activity of the pituitary gland.

In the adrenal glands, exercise helps to stimulate the release of cortisol, which is a natural cortisone. If you’ve got any inflammatory conditions such as fibromyalgia or arthritis, regular exercise will produce the natural cortisol to stop the associated pain. Cortisol is released as a result of stress, including the stress of exercise. It can help to metabolize fat for fuel and to convert protein into energy.

Aldosterone, the hormone that helps to balance minerals, is also stimulated by exercise.


The thyroid gland produces thyroid hormone, which controls mental clarity. People who constantly feel fuzzy headed and can’t remember basic information will probably find that their thyroid gland is not working properly. And the reason that it’s not working properly is because the hormonal system is out of balance. Exercise has the power to correct it. That’s why, after you’ve gone for a brisk walk, you feel as if your brain is working again.

The thyroid also controls bowel function and the amount of calcium in your bones. That’s why exercise is a great combative against osteoporosis. When it comes to osteoporosis and the release of the thyroid hormone, weight bearing and strengthening exercises have been shown to be the the most effective.

Insulin and Glucagon

Exercise also helps to regulate pancreatic function. The pancreas controls digestive enzyme production and blood sugar. So people with blood sugar and digestive problems can only benefit from exercise.

Insulin and glucagon are two hormones that are released by the pancreas. They both have a vital role to play in allowing energy to be available for exercise. Exercise suppresses the release of insulin from the pancreas, while also increasing insulin sensitivity. The result is that less insulin is required for the same effect.

During exercise glucose uptake by our muscles speeds up. Increased glucagon release facilitates an increase in blood sugar levels. This reaction takes effect as exercise progresses and glycogen stores deplete.

The General Adaptation Syndrome

Whenever we exercise we place stress on our body. During the first 2-3 weeks of beginning an exercise program, the body goes through a shock or alarm phase where your hormones are having to adapt to doing something new. This is followed by a 4-6 week adaptation phase, during which the body becomes more effective at responding to the stress of exercise. After that you reach an exhaustion phase where you plateau in your performance. That is why you should change your exercise program every two to three months.

Using Exercise to Slow Down the Aging Process

By choosing exercises which promote more of an anabolic, or muscle building, hormonal response, we can help to lessen the aging process. If we are repairing and rebuilding new muscle cells, we are helping the muscles to act and behave younger.

Your key anabolic hormones are . . .

  • Growth hormone
  • Testosterone
  • Insulin-like growth-factor 1 (IGF-1)

The best exercises to stimulate your anabolic hormones are heavy compound resistance moves like squats, the bench press and the deadlift. Growth hormone and testosterone release re also associated with strength improvement.

Why You Should Exercise in Natural Light

When you exercise outside with the sun beating down, the sunlight will help to regulate your seratonin and melatonin levels. This will help you to sleep better at night.

The Sun also has a very profound effect on the hormonal system. Light from the sun reaches the pineal gland near the base of the brain. That’s the gland that regulates your seratonin and melatonin levels. Seratonin makes you feel happy and induces sleep. Try to exercise outdoors at least three times per week. Don’t wear eye protection when you are exercising to allow the natural light to get through. If you wear contacts, see if you can remove them when working out in the outdoors.

Don’t Give Up On Exercise

Exercise is so important for optimal hormonal functioning that it is something that you need to continue with for the rest of your life. The moment you stop exercising, your hormonal system will start to function less than optimally. Over time it will only get worse.

What’s the Best Exercise for Your Hormones?

One of the best exercises for over hormonal well-being is walking. It provides rhythmical aerobic exercise for the lungs and heart.  A brisk walk is also a great opportunity to get out in the sun, where you expose yourself to the ultraviolet light that helps to balance your serotonin and melatonin levels. Ideally, though, you should do a mixture of aerobic and anaerobic exercise.

Exercise against a resistance is the best way to release such hormones as growth hormone and testosterone, whereas aerobic exercise will more readily boost your vasopressin and endorphin levels.

Stay Regular

Make it your aim to exercise every single day for a minimum of twenty minutes. You could choose to do a resistance exercise program on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and go for a 20-23 minute walk on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. Keep in mind, too, that resistance exercise doesn’t mean that you have to go out and join a gym. You can get a great workout with just your bodyweight exercises, doing exercises like push ups or by performing cardiovascular activities down at the local park. Or you can set up your own garage gym at home, allowing you to work out whenever you get the urge.