PCOS Awareness Expert Interview with Erika Volk
Fitness is a critical component to managing your PCOS symptoms.
With that said, I know there are a lot of questions surrounding what types of exercises are best for women with PCOS and how to lose weight when you are insulin resistant, along with many more plaguing questions. So I went to one of the top experts in fitness for women with PCOS, Erika Volk. Erika is the PCOS Personal Trainer. She is an accomplished personal trainer with certifications from the American Council on Exercise (ACE), TRX Suspension Training Systems, and Precision Nutrition. It was Erika's own battles with PCOS that led her down the path to becoming a personal trainer and reclaiming her health. Erika's health is thriving today and in fact, she just welcomed her first child.
Below you will see the Q&A that I had with Erika. I hope this answers some of your burning questions about exercises and fitness for women with PCOS.
1. What are the best exercises for women who are insulin resistant?
Strength training is the best form of exercise to counteract insulin resistance. Muscle tissue is one of the primary consumers of glucose in the body so having more muscle cells will help keep your blood sugar at a healthy level. Plus strength training will make those new muscle cells more sensitive to insulin, so your pancreas needs to produce less insulin to keep your metabolism running smoothly.
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2. How often should women with PCOS work out?
There's no one-size-fits-all rule for how often a women with PCOS should workout, but there are some general guidelines you can use to set-up a routine that works for you.
Be realistic. Don’t set yourself up for frustration and burnout by undertaking a workout program that is not conducive to your schedule.
Try to be physically active every day. On days when you do not have a workout planned, you could walk to and from work, do some yard work, or play tag with your kids.
Prioritize strength training. Strength training causes more positive changes to PCOS than any other type of exercise so if you are short on time aim to strength train for at least 20-30 minutes two or three times a week.
3. When is the best time to exercise? Is is better to workout before or after you eat? Why?
Most women enjoy exercising first thing in the morning before the busyness of the day distracts them. However, the best time to exercise is the time that works well for your schedule.
For the average woman who is working out for general health and weight maintenance pre and post workout nutrition guidelines are pretty simple. It is a good idea to eat a well-balanced meal 1-2 hours before exercising and eat a meal or snack 2-3 hours after exercising. Eating a healthy meal before exercising will ensure that you feel energized and eating after exercising will help your body recover and build muscle. I recommend including a protein rich food, a serving of vegetables, a serving of healthy carbs like whole grains, fruit or a sweet potato, and some healthy fat like olive oil or nuts with each meal. Smoothies are a good alternative to eating a full meal. A pre or post workout smoothie should include a scoop or two of protein powder, a serving of veggies, a serving of fruit, some healthy fat, like a tablespoon of peanut butter or chia seeds, and a low-calorie liquid like water or almond milk to blend with.
Some women like to workout first thing in the morning before breakfast. If you feel energized during your workout and follow up your training session with a healthy breakfast, it is ok to workout before your first meal of the day.
4. Are there any exercises that are not good for women with PCOS?
Not really. Some types of workouts are more effective for correcting PCOS symptoms, but any physical activity is beneficial as long as you are giving your body some time to recover. It's a good idea to alternate between intense workout and light restorative activities like walking or gentle yoga.
5. How often should you change your exercise routine?
You want to stick with a program long enough that you become fitter but not so long that you plateau and stop seeing any results. Changing your workout every 6-8 weeks will keep your body stimulated enough to avoid a plateau while giving you some time to master new exercises and skills.
6. What is the best way to break through a weight loss plateau?
Evaluate how consistent you are with diet and exercise. Most women start out their weight loss journey inspired and focused. As time goes on, most of us naturally become less consistent with our healthy habits.
If you have not lost any weight for 2-3 weeks, I would spend some time evaluating how closely you are following your original program.
Keep a food and exercise journal for a week or two and see if you have just become a little too relaxed with food or you have not progressed your workouts and now they are too easy.
7. Is walking beneficial for weight loss? How many miles or steps do you recommend daily to achieve weight loss?
I walk almost every day. I like walking because it reduces stress and it is an easy way to get moving. Walking is an ideal activity for your days off from the gym. The gentle low-impact movement will increase blood flow which will help you recover from intense workouts.
I do not have a recommendation for how much you should walk instead I think it is best to walk as often as possible whether it is to relax or for transportation. But if you find counting steps or miles motivating- go for it!
8. Are shorter workouts better? Why or why not?
Ideally, PCOS workouts should be short and intense. Research like this study from UCSF indicates that shorter more intense (difficult) workouts do a better job of improving the metabolic problems associated with PCOS than longer moderate intensity workouts.
Challenging strength workouts that keep your repetitions under 15 per set and high-intensity interval training are two examples of workouts that take as little as 20 minutes but can do a lot of good for women living with PCOS.
9. What's your best tip to help women with PCOS lose weight?
Move every day and stop eating before you feel full. It is easy to get caught up in looking for the perfect workout and diet. But if you do not master the basics first, you will not succeed long term.
Start by simply making it a habit get some physical activity each day and learn how to stop eating before you are completely full. These are simple enough tips, but they are pretty hard to follow!
Once you are consistently getting physical activity and paying attention to your natural hunger cues, you will be much more likely to succeed with more advanced weight loss strategies.
10. What exercises would you recommend for women with PCOS who want to lose weight? Women with PCOS who are pregnant? Women with PCOS who are postpartum?
Oh my goodness, I could write pages and pages on this!
If you want to lose weight start with three total-body strength training sessions a week and two 15-minute sessions of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) cardio. During a HIIT workout, the trainee will alternate between bouts of challenging fast-paced exercise and bouts of low-intensity activity. For example, you might alternate between sprinting as fast as you can and walking at a steady pace.
Guidelines for working out while pregnant vary depending on the trimester. I recommend that pregnant women focus on strength training and keep their cardio light and leisurely.
After giving birth, you will need about eight weeks of recovery time but you can start some basic pelvic floor and core exercises almost immediately. I used a program by Post-natal expert Jessie Mundell to recover from childbirth. I was very happy with the program.
11. What does your fitness routine look like? Can you give some examples?
My fitness routine has changed a bit since my son was born in February. I start most mornings off with a stroller walk around the trails by my house then warm up for my workout. I train at home so that my son can watch me from his little bouncy seat. He loves watching me workout :)
On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays I strength train with dumbbells and a suspension trainer. I spend about 10 minutes warming up, then 10 minutes on core work then I'll do two exercises for the lower body and two for the upper body. My entire workout takes about 45 minutes.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I do gentle yoga to help me recover from my strength workouts.
On Saturdays and Sundays my husband puts on the baby carrier, and the three of us go hiking.
I'd like to thank Erika Volk for her thoughtful answers and her expertise. I encourage you to follow her for more information and tips. She has a wealth of knowledge and having PCOS herself gives her a unique perspective many trainers do not have.
If you are enjoying the expert series, please share them on social media! Let's help clear the myths about PCOS and spread awareness!
Erika Volk, The PCOS Personal Trainer, guides women living with PCOS toward a lifestyle that gets their symptoms under control so that they have the time, energy, and confidence to thrive. She is a certified personal trainer, nutrition coach, and creator of the PCOS Fit Studio workout videos. Erika was diagnosed with PCOS in 2005 and has been coaching women with PCOS since 2010. Through her personal experience and work with clients, she has discovered that exercise is a fantastic, PCOS-fighting tool.