What to Know About Lifestyle Changes for PCOS

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on August 08, 2023
4 min read

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a common condition caused by an imbalance of reproductive hormones. A doctor may recommend making lifestyle changes to help manage your symptoms. 

Polycystic ovary syndrome affects 6% to 12% of women who are of reproductive age. Women with PCOS are often insulin resistant and may have higher levels of androgens. Androgens are hormones that are present in both men and women:‌

Some of the symptoms of PCOS include: 

  • Irregular menstrual cycle
  • Excessive hair on your chin or face (hirsutism)
  • Thinning of your hair, or hair loss
  • Darkening of your skin, especially in your groin, underneath your breasts, and along the creases around your neck
  • Acne on your face, upper back, and chest
  • Skin tags, which are small excess flaps of skin in your neck area or armpits ‌

If your symptoms aren’t managed, you’re at a higher risk for serious health problems like:

There’s no cure for PCOS, but your symptoms can be managed by making some lifestyle changes. 

Exercise has a positive effect on polycystic ovary syndrome. It not only helps with weight loss but also may reduce the testosterone concentration in your blood.‌

About 50% of people with PCOS are overweight or obese. Short-term weight loss can help restore your fertility and ovulation, as well as improve your insulin resistance.‌

Researchers say that vigorous exercise has the highest impact on body mass index (BMI), fitness, and insulin resistance in women with PCOS. At least 120 minutes of vigorous intensity exercise each week is recommended.

Resistance training. Fewer scientific studies have been carried out with resistance training. But as there’s evidence that resistance training may help improve insulin sensitivity in diabetic people, it may have an effect on those with polycystic ovary syndrome as well.‌

Mind-body exercises. Exercise can also improve your mental health. Polycystic ovary syndrome has been linked with an increased risk for mental health disorders. Exercises that engage your mind and body can help. These include yoga, tai chi, qi gong, and pilates.‌

Best type of exercise for PCOS. Researchers have been unable to find a specific type of exercise that's best for those with PCOS. Instead, they say that many types of exercise can benefit people with PCOS.‌

The best type of exercise is one that you’ll do regularly. Aerobic exercise includes brisk walking, biking, swimming, and more. Resistance training includes exercises that improve your endurance and muscle strength — such as sit-ups, push-ups, leg squats, or lifting weights.

About two out of five women with PCOS use herbal medicine.

A review of scientific studies on herbs and polycystic ovary syndrome found that evidence shows some herbal medicine may help regulate ovulation and improve fertility. More studies are needed on the full effects of herbs and PCOS, however.

In a study of 122 women with PCOS, those who took herbal medicine and made lifestyle changes saw greater improvements in symptoms compared to those who only made lifestyle changes. These lifestyle changes were a calorie-controlled diet and at least 150 minutes of exercise each week. Herbal medicines taken included cinnamon, St John’s wort, and licorice root.

Many people with PCOS have insulin resistance. This is when your body doesn’t respond well to insulin. Your pancreas produces insulin, which allows your body to use glucose for energy. Insulin also helps balance your blood sugar levels.

Having high levels of insulin is believed to increase androgens in women with PCOS and worsen your risk of complications. With a well-balanced diet, you can help manage your PCOS.

Dietary fiber. Increasing the amount of fiber in your diet will help you combat insulin resistance.‌

Women should eat about 21 grams to 25 grams of fiber a day. Foods that are high in fiber include:

Anti-inflammatory foods. Research has shown that women with PCOS have a type of inflammation that stimulates your ovaries to produce androgens.

Eating foods that help fight inflammation may be useful. These include:

  • Tomatoes
  • Green leafy vegetables such as kale and spinach
  • Fish that are high in fatty acids like salmon, sardines, and mackerel
  • Nuts like almonds and walnuts
  • Fruits such as oranges, cherries, blueberries, and strawberries
  • Olive oil‌

Whole grains. Carbohydrates are part of a balanced diet. When eating carbs, you should reach for whole grains. Whole grains are high in fiber and won’t affect your blood sugar levels as much as refined carbohydrates.‌

Fatty acids. Fish oil, taken with vitamin E, has also been found to decrease insulin levels.