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According to the Hormone Health Network…

“Hormones are special chemical messengers in the body that are created in the endocrine glands. These messengers control most major bodily functions, from simple basic needs like hunger to complex systems like reproduction, and even the emotions and mood. Understanding the major hormones and what they do will help patients take control of their health.”

For years, research has shown that the benefits of exercise for the human body far exceed the simple benefit of burning calories, either during or after a workout. Exercise actually has a powerful influence over neurotransmitter and hormone levels, and in particular, it is often the type of exercise chosen and its duration that determines how the body will respond to certain hormonal changes and stimulation.

Any type of physical activity can incur hormonal changes in women

Some of these changes are quiet beneficial, while others can have negative implications. Often the differences between positive and negative effects depend on the intensity levels of the exercise being performed, as well as the duration of such intense activity. 

In most cases, moderate level activity has more benefit than extended durations of overly intensive exercise that create imbalances in hormone levels, which can cause various health risks and consequences in the female body. 


Estrogen is a set of hormones that includes estradiol, estrone, and estriol. These hormones are produced by the body in the adrenal glands, the ovaries, and fatty tissue. In premenopausal women, estrogen is released in the ovaries, while in postmenopausal women it is released in fatty tissue. 

Estrogen fluctuations are a normal part of any woman’s life, and can also be affected by exercise.

1| Amenorrhea

Extremely active women can see a significant drop in estrogen levels that typically result from intense exercise, and very low body fat levels, such as the case with athletes. 

Two examples that have a significant effect on drops in estrogen levels are long-distance running and ballet dancing, both of which are associated with very low body weight. The combination of a very low body weight and excessive exercise results in the body believing itself to be in a starvation state, where nutrient intake does not counteract calories burned by exercise, and results in the body shutting down key systems, such as the reproductive system.

Significant drops in estrogen can cause a condition known as amenorrhea, a prolonged cessation of menstrual periods. Since estrogen is a key player in bone health, long-term amenorrhea can potentially cause various problems, such as poor bone density and osteoporosis. 

Additionally, exercise-induced amenorrhea can potentially cause vaginal and breast atrophy, and infertility. A prolonged state of amenorrhea also increases risk factors for heart attacks later in life.

Treatments used for amenorrhea include increasing caloric intake, hormone therapy, medication, and a reduction in physical activity.

2| An HRT Alternative For Menopause 

One of the treatments for low estrogen levels in menopausal women is HRT or hormone replacement therapy, which has health risks, such as increased possibilities for stroke, heart disease, and blood clots.

Studies have shown that moderate physical activity can reduce the need for HRT by producing certain psychological effects. 

One eight-year study led by Deborah Nelson, Ph.D., an associate profession at Temple University, found that postmenopausal women, who engaged in regular physical activity, had experienced less depression, stress, and anxiety than women who did not workout. 

3| Excessive Estrogen And Breast Cancer Risks

Excessive levels of estrogen in postmenopausal women have been linked to higher risks for breast cancer and this risk can be reduced with an increase in physical activity.

Dr. Anne McTiernan, University of Washington School of Medicine professor, conducted a 12-month study that looked at the effect of vigorous exercise on estrogen levels in 174 postmenopausal women who were overweight and led a sedentary lifestyle. 

Those study subjects who participated in physical activity experienced noticeably decreased estrogen levels, while those who remained sedentary had no decrease. The female subjects, who lost at least 2% of their body fat, had the most significant decreases in estrogen dips.

BreastCancer.org also cites studies that demonstrate a significant link between moderate-to-vigorous workouts and lowering risks for breast cancer. 

Lowering estrogen levels with regular exercise helps to reduce risks of breast cancer as one randomized trial published in the “Journal of Clinical Oncology” describes.

The study followed 320 sedentary postmenopausal women whose ages ranged between 50 and 74, for one year. Half the subjects performed 225 minutes of aerobic training each week, and the other half of the female subjects maintained their usual lifestyle without adding any new physical activity.

The year-end evaluation found that the subjects who exercised had lower levels of both estradiol and free-estradiol versus the sedentary group, and these reductions lower risks for postmenopausal breast cancer.

4| Maintaining Balanced Estrogen Levels

Following a healthy diet and getting regular exercise are the best ways to keep estrogen levels balanced and healthy. Women of menstruation age especially have control over their levels of estrogen, more so than women in post-menopause years when this hormone naturally decreases as a result of menopause.

According to the experts at WebMd, maintaining a healthy bodyweight and body fat levels helps to maintain optimum estrogen levels.


The American Fertility Association explains progesterone to be a hormone released by the female ovaries for the purpose of regulating menstruation, and supporting pregnancy. 

Progesterone prepares the uterine lining for implantation of a fertilized egg through a woman’s monthly menstrual cycle. If pregnancy occurs, progesterone then supports the development and growth of the fetus. 

Strenuous exercise has negative effects in the female body as it can reduce the production of progesterone, leading to fertility issues and pregnancy complications, while moderate exercise has positive effects.

1| Strenuous Activity Decreases Levels Of Progesterone

Highly strenuous physical activity is believed to decrease fertility because it reduces the production of progesterone. According to WebMD, the lack or reduction of progesterone changes the menstrual cycle affecting a woman’s ability to become pregnant.

Highly strenuous activity not only effects the menstrual cycle, it also results in the body being too exhausted to make the necessary changes needed to support pregnancy.

This effect is typically temporary, such as the case with athletes performing intensive training for a particular event.  

2| Moderate Aerobic Exercise Has Positive Effects

Moderate levels of exercise have positive effects on the menstrual cycle, especially by its ability to increase levels of progesterone when the body is not making enough on its own.

The American Heart Association defines moderate exercise as 150 minutes of physical activity per week. 

Both progesterone and estrogen work together to help burn body fat and engaging in moderate exercise can help this process. 

High intensity workouts performed in shorter time spurts, like HIIT or sprinting, but not done in excess can help regulate progesterone levels.

3| Moderate Weight Training

Weight training also has positive effects and benefits on progesterone. Engaging in moderate level weight training sessions for 2 or 3 days each week can block the effects of stress hormones, including cortisol, and this is important because balanced stress hormones leads to balanced progesterone levels.

Additionally, moderate weight training helps keep optimal levels of the human growth hormone, in which progesterone plays a key role in maintaining a healthy pregnancy, especially in the first trimester.

4| Premenstrual Syndrome

Premenstrual syndrome or PMS affects about 80% of menstruating women, and causes very real physical and emotional changes that occur as a result of hormonal fluctuations throughout the menstrual cycle, but which are mainly caused by depreciation of the hormone progesterone that occurs right before a period. 

Exercise can help PMS symptoms, especially those of depression, anger, and stress. 

Women with PMS are encouraged to exercise for 20 to 45 minutes every day or at the very least 3 to 5 times per week.

Human Growth Hormone

Human growth hormone, or HGH, promotes growth, and turnover of bone, collagen, and muscle. HGH also supports metabolic functioning, increases fat metabolism and maintaining healthy body weight in later life. 

Two of the most powerful nondrug ways to stimulate the release of HGH is by way of exercise and good sleep.

Exercise-induced growth hormone response or EIGR is a well-recognized process, where both endurance and resistance training play a key role. 

Resistance Training includes lifting weights, strength training, and bodyweight exercises.

Endurance training includes running, cycling, aerobic activity, various cardio machines, and even brisk swimming and walking.


Cortisol is one of the main stress hormones. In ancient times, cortisol served humans by significantly increasing energy levels during a fight or flight response, such as having to out run a pack of wolves and other dangers. While these dangers are gone today, the body still reacts in the same way during times of stress with the release of cortisol causing a consequential set of responses, including the breakdown of proteins and release of glucose into the blood stream. Prolonged times of stress results in undue consequences from the constant release of cortisol into the body, and intense or highly strenuous activity does the same.

Spikes in cortisol are triggered during intense exercise, and these levels continue to rise as the exercise session goes on for a prolonged period of time. 

While short spikes of cortisol are normal and necessary, problems arise when levels are always high, a common symptom of overtraining. Experts advise that prolonged chronic levels of elevated cortisol can cause cardiovascular problems and eating habit changes. 

The Belly Fat Connection

Excess belly fat is indicative of hormonal imbalances, including high levels of estrogen, low DHEA, low testosterone, high insulin, and high cortisol. 

Belly fat, or visceral fat greatly increases risks for serious conditions as you age, including metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. 

When stress is high, cortisol levels are high, and the body then begins to resist weight loss. During these times, the body interprets stress as “hard times” and to protect the body from starvation is begins to hoard the fat you eat or that which you have on your body. 

As cortisol begins to move fat from healthier areas, like the peripheral fat found in hips and the butt, it moves to the belly that has more cortisol receptors, and this leads to an increase in belly fat, or visceral fat the most dangerous type of body fat. 

Visceral fat surrounds organs within the body and plays a key role in insulin resistance, and increases in inflammation. Visceral fat may also shorten lifespan, as shown in a recent landmark study, where longevity correlated directly with waist size in both men and women, and those who had the largest waist sizes were at the highest risk of premature death from co-associated chronic conditions. 

Belly fat results in an increased production of cortisol, mainly because it contains high levels of an enzyme that converts inactive cortisone to active cortisol, creating a vicious cycle of more belly fat leading to more cortisol and vice versa.

Reducing stress is key in maintaining healthier levels of cortisol, and this means avoiding excessive and prolonged periods of intense physical activity. 

Shorter moderate workout sessions can help avoid this problem, and keep you in better shape by supporting weight loss.

Running, cycling, HIIT and strength training can help decrease stress and therefore reduces the levels of cortisol in your body. 

The key is moderation, in both frequency and intensity. 

This is why high intensity internal training or HIIT is so effective, it allows for the maximum fat burn and heart health advantages in the shortest amount of exercise time. 

Diet is also important with a focus on whole foods, lots of healthy high quality protein and healthy carbs, and eliminating processed food and simple carbs, like sugar and white bread.

Meditation, yoga, and other stress management techniques can also go a long way to keeping stress at bay and reducing the nasty effects of elevated cortisol levels. 

Thyroid Hormones

The thyroid produces two key hormones, thyroxine and triiodothyronine, which play a key role in almost all the cells of the body by regulating basal metabolic rate, protein synthesis, bone growth and vitamin metabolism, just to name a few.

The Hormone Foundation reports that complications in any of the thyroid hormones significantly affects the production and action of the others hormones. Both hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism can affect exercise efforts.

Common Thyroid Syndromes

Hypothyroidism is a condition that features decreases in the production of thyroid hormones, leading to a significant decline in metabolism, which leads to weight gain, depression, and extreme fatigue.

Hyperthyroidism has the opposite effect and increases thyroid gland activity, which promotes the increase of the metabolic rate, leading to unwanted weight loss, infertility, irritability, muscle weakness, and tremors.

Effects Of Thyroid Problems On Exercise Habits

Both hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism can affect exercise efforts. 

Hypothyroidism leads to mental and physical sluggishness, and any attempts at physical activity may be hindered by weight gain, painful joints, and constant fatigue. 

Hyperthyroidism causes brittle bones where ongoing exercise can increase risks for exercise-induced fractures.

Benefits Of Exercise For Thyroid Conditions

Both thyroid conditions require medical treatment, and exercise can make a great compliment. While various complications affect thyroid function that can negatively influence the desire to workout, the right approach to exercise actually helps both thyroid conditions.

The University Of Maryland Medical Center reports that 30 minutes of daily exercise, 5 times per week helps manage and reduce hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism symptoms.

Physical activity mainly benefits hypothyroidism as one study published in Neuroendocrinology Letters in 2005 found that aerobic exercise promotes the circulation and release thyroid hormones. 

Additionally, physical activity increases the metabolic rate, helps weight management, and combats stress. 


While testosterone is considered a male hormone, women also have testosterone in their bodies, it secreted by the ovaries, though at much lower levels than men. 

Testosterone plays a key role in the woman’s body. The correct amounts of testosterone help promote lean muscle mass, and improve brain function, while lower levels can have negative and detrimental health effects including, increase fat storage, decreases in sex drive and higher risks for cardiovascular disease.

Healthy levels of testosterone, which are supported by exercise, have positive effects on women’s metabolic systems and sex drive.

Healthy Testosterone Levels In The Female Body

A study conducted by the North American Menopause Society evaluated women who had a hysterectomy and testing found that women who received testosterone had improved lean mass, were able to chest press more weight and performed better on stair climber machines. 

Furthermore, there were improvements in sexual function as compared to the placebo group. Additionally, there was a low frequency of adverse events. 

This study demonstrated testosterone’s positive effect on women’s metabolic systems as it relates to exercise and general fitness and also as a sex hormone in increasing their sex drive.

Testosterone And Aerobic Training During Menstruation

Women of menstruation age have high fluctuations of hormones throughout their monthly cycle that feature low and high levels of estrogen. A study conducted by The Applied Physiology Laboratory in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at the University of North Carolina examined how androgen would respond in women under both low and high level of estrogen conditions.

The study had ten women run on a treadmill for 60 minutes at 70% of their V02 max, they did so while in the mid-follicular phase of their menstrual cycle, this is when the ovaries prepare to release an egg, and they also ran during the mid-luteal cycle, which is when ovulation begins. 

Researchers collected blood samples to test for testosterone levels at three critical points, before the exercise, right after and 30 minutes into the recovery phase.

The results showed that it did not matter at which point of the menstrual cycle the subjects were in in regards to the level of interaction with testosterone, and that testosterone greatly exceeded the baseline levels immediately following exercise.

This leads to the conclusion that prolonged aerobic exercise increases short-term elevations in testosterone in menstruating women, no matter their estrogen levels of where they are in their menstrual cycle.

This study showed that exercise results in higher levels of testosterone being produced in the female body immediately after working out, and that this occurs regardless of whether the body is making more of it or destroying less of it.


Insulin is an anabolic hormone that plays a key role in metabolism and its functioning. 

Any carbohydrates you eat in food enter the blood stream in the form of glucose, at which point the body releases insulin in order to remove this glucose and in turn, the cells build their energy stores while at the same time keeping blood sugar at healthy levels. 

Bad dietary habits result in the over release of insulin, which leads to insulin resistance, where the body will need more and more insulin to remove glucose from the blood, eventually leading to a serious chronic disease known as type 2 diabetes.

Exercise is a powerful tool for those with diabetes. 

  1. The most important benefit comes with consistent and long-term exercise habits that mitigate symptoms of insulin resistance
  2. The effects of insulin inside the body can be mimicked in a single exercise session 
  3. Since insulin resistance is greatly associated with obesity, regular exercise helps you lose weight, and significant weight loss can prevent and reverse type 2 diabetes


Leptin is a hunger hormone controlled by the hypothalamus in the brain and plays a key role in regulating energy intake and expenditure, and is one of the key hormones that determine your bodyweight, metabolism, and general health. Like insulin resistance, resistance to leptin is also linked to obesity.

Leptin Functions

  • Leptin tells your brain how much fat is on your body and sends signals to store or burn fat
  • Leptin regulates appetite and metabolism
  • When leptin levels rise, the appetite diminishes as your body gets the signal that it is full, telling the body to stop eating and to stop storing fat and this prompts metabolism to start burning fat and calories
  • As leptin levels decrease, the appetite increases and the brain gets the message that it’s time to eat again and prompts the metabolism to slow down
  • One study from Monash University In Australia found that leptin can increase thermogenesis, the process that generates heat within the muscles to help burn body fat

Leptin Resistance

Leptin resistance, like insulin resistance is one major issue for the obese, as the brain cannot hear the leptin signal and so it does not stimulate metabolism or suppress the appetite, leading to over eating and making weight loss very difficult. 

Regularly eating more calories than you burn can lead to leptin resistance, as the body becomes unable to determine that your body fat levels are too high, and leptin receptors become desensitized. The longer the body remains resistant to leptin, the more it is influenced to remain fat. 

Some of the key players in leptin resistance are:

  • High carb, high sugar diets, which also cause insulin spikes that raise leptin production
  • Diets high in fast food
  • Starvation
  • Excess stress
  • Irregular sleep
  • Lack of regular physical exercise

Regular physical activity has been shown to have a positive effect on both leptin and insulin sensitivity. A study at the University of Florida found that moderate exercise supports and regulates leptin to work properly, consequently helping to control weight. 

Many experts report that high intensity interval training (HIIT) has a positive effect on regulating leptin. HIIT stimulates large secretions of the human growth hormone that helps to boost fat burning and regulates leptin levels. 

Short bursts of vigorous activity versus long slow and steady cardio sessions seem to yield positive effects on leptin, as they do on insulin and both of these hormones tendencies towards resistance in the body.

A simple walking program that incorporates intervals can help flip both of the leptin and insulin switches towards proper functioning, and as both of these hormones begin to operate efficiently, your appetite, metabolism and energy levels will improve. 

Science Is Still Unsure

One review’s scientists, (Leptin, its Implication in Physical Exercise and Training: A Short Review, Bouassida, et al) concluded that the actual implications of leptin in exercise are still unclear. 

These researchers concluded that there might be many reasons to explain changes in leptin responses brought on by exercise.

Some of the reasons cited included that exercise can lower body fat, increase energy, and affect hormone concentrations, including insulin, cortisol, and testosterone, and exercise may also influence metabolites, including triglycerides, free fatty acids and others.

All of these factors were believed to support the reasoning that exercise can modify the leptin response.

Bottom Line

Hormones have a powerful effect on the mind and body. These tiny little chemical messengers control many major bodily functions, and can affect reproduction, emotions, and mood.

The great news is that we do have power over them, and by understanding how exercise effects each of these important hormones within the human female body, you can be healthy and fit!

Healthy behaviors including getting regular exercise, avoiding over-exertion and proper nutrition can keep your hormones balanced, and your health in check!

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