Exercises for an Underactive Thyroid

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on December 01, 2017
3 min read

If you have an underactive thyroid, a condition called hypothyroidism, exercise is probably the last thing on your mind. After all, symptoms like fatigue, swelling, and joint and muscle pain don’t make you want to get up and go.

But experts say that physical activity can help you feel better.

If your condition is well controlled, you should be able to do the same physical activity as someone without a thyroid disorder, says John C. Morris, MD, professor of medicine and endocrinology at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine.

But if you’re just starting an exercise plan or if you’re still dealing with symptoms, low-impact aerobic exercise and strengthening moves are best.

“Low-impact exercise doesn’t apply as much pressure,” says Norma Lopez, MD, an associate professor of endocrinology and metabolism at Loyola University Medical Center. “That’s key, since hypothyroidism can cause pain and swelling in your muscles and joints.”

Try these activities:

Walking: One of the easiest workouts to do. All you need is a pair of comfortable shoes. It gets your heart pumping and burns about 280 calories an hour.

Water aerobics: If you have swelling in your ankles or feet, some exercises may be painful. Water aerobics is a good option. The water holds you up and lowers the impact on your joints.

Yoga: This can stretch and strengthen your muscles. It also helps you focus on breathing. One study found that people with hypothyroidism had better lung strength after practicing yoga breathing for 6 months.

Tai chi: Described as “moving meditation,” this slow-motion form of martial arts is a proven stress-buster. Research shows it can help improve strength, balance, and mood.

Strength training: Whether you lift weights or use your body weight, building muscle helps you burn more calories -- even when you’re sitting still. And that can help you shed extra pounds. Strong muscles also help ease pressure on your joints.

While medication from your doctor is the only way to help your body make more hormones, exercise can help some of the problems that come with hypothyroidism, Morris says.

Working out 3 hours a week for 3 months can put you in better physical and mental health and raise your quality of life.

There are many ways exercise can help:

Boost your mood. “An underactive thyroid can cause feelings of depression and anxiety,” Lopez says. Exercise lowers stress and helps your body make more endorphins. This lifts your mood and zaps those sad and anxious feelings.

Help you lose weight. A slow metabolism can cause weight gain and make it hard to shed pounds. Exercise burns calories and builds muscle, which can help you slim down.

Increase your energy. Fighting fatigue or sluggishness? Low-intensity aerobic exercise can help. People who rode an exercise bike for 20 minutes, three times a week, had more energy and less fatigue.

Before you start any workout routine, see your doctor.

“You need to make sure that your hypothyroidism is under control,” Lopez says. You should have a thyroid that works normally through thyroid-hormone replacement medications before you start.

If you don’t, exercise may make you feel worse. For instance, going for a run could make your already-aching joints hurt even more, Lopez says. Because an underactive thyroid often causes shortness of breath, a return to exercise before you’re ready could cause you to wheeze through a workout.

Also, check with your doctor before taking any supplements, like protein powders, to boost your workouts. Some nutrients, like the soy found in shakes, can stop your medications from working like they should, Lopez says.

As with any new exercise routine, start slow. Take breaks if you need them, and stop if it hurts. Once you feel more comfortable, build up to longer, harder workouts.