Your energy and vitality are bound up in the optimal function of the thyroid, the small but important gland in the throat. Whether you've been diagnosed with a specific thyroid condition or simply feel sluggish and have difficulty losing weight, supporting the health of your thyroid through exercise may help to improve how you feel.
The thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped organ in the neck that produces thyroid hormones, , which travel to cells throughout the body. One of the gland's main jobs is to regulate metabolism—not just weight management, but the rate at which we burn food as fuel. If the thyroid is functioning under par (hypothyroidism), it tends to show up as difficulty waking up in the morning, a need for more sleep, general fatigue, cold hands and feet, depression, hearing problems, hoarse voice, thinning hair and loss of the outer third of the eyebrow. Lower hormone levels are also usually associated with weight gain.
Energy levels are profoundly linked to mental health, and those with thyroid issues often report feeling like life is passing them by. Exercise has been shown to support thyroid function, but ironically, when it's under-functioning, it can be tough to get the motivation to move at all.
A holistic approach
Although most of the evidence here concerns low thyroid hormone levels, the following exercises are designed to support the body's overall modulatory processes, not simply to fix a problem of too-high or too-low thyroid hormone levels.
Many people may have suspected that their thyroid function was low and so were tested by their GP, yet got a normal result. That's because it's possible to have a thyroid that functions just short of the medical definition of hypothyroidism, or because the body is not using what hormones it does make.
If this sounds like you, especially if you recognize some of the symptoms mentioned above, the chances are you'll benefit from thyroid-supporting exercise, and balancing blood sugar through nutrition, including dietary sugar reduction. If you're already taking thyroxine (T4) and have had your symptoms relieved by medication, supporting the thyroid naturally is still important. Just make sure to get your thyroid function regularly tested by your GP to check that your medication levels are still appropriate after making any changes in your diet and lifestyle.
Stress is a major factor in thyroid expression because being on 'constant alert' and under persistent perceived danger from chronic stress suggest a need to conserve energy. Consequently, the adrenal glands tell the thyroid to go slow by down-regulating the metabolic rate as a survival mechanism—one of the ways stress can contribute to weight gain and difficulty in losing excess weight.
When the adrenals become worn out after years of stress, the thyroid hormones can struggle to reach body tissues, resulting in always feeling cold, and poor circulation and fluid retention. As low thyroid function has been associated with anxiety, this can become a vicious cycle. Naturopaths believe that when stress is chronic, the body may start to 'ignore' the thyroid, and this may account for a number of autoimmune disorders.
Exercise can relieve high stress levels so long as your regimen doesn't create strain in itself. An intelligent movement programme can support thyroid regulation and help in many other aspects of thyroid function. Constipation linked to an underactive thyroid can be part of both the cause and the effect: a slowed metabolism hampers gut function, so allowing toxins and used hormones to be reabsorbed into the gut, further impairing thyroid function.
Exercise increases both the lymphatic and blood circulation, which supports digestion as well as creates fluidity in the fascia around the digestive organs and the gut.
At the back of the thyroid sits the parathyroid gland, which regulates calcium going in and out of bone, so this gland's health is also key for good bone health.
There has been little research into the effects of exercise in those with reduced thyroid function, and what studies there are have had inconsistent findings. Some show that maximum aerobic activity provokes maximum thyroid hormone output in athletes,1 while others show conflicting results.2
As thyroid hormones are associated with physical movement and exercise, an increase in their levels is to be expected with greater muscle use. T3 is the thyroid hormone picked up by cells for this; T3 is mainly converted from T4 (thyroxine), a conversion that relies on movement and is inhibited by stress.
While these mechanisms are still being investigated and aren't fully understood, factors like age, gender, obesity, stress and inflammation can all affect metabolic efficiency.3 One study in female collegiate athletes demonstrated that overtraining may lead to impaired thyroid function and blood glucose regulation, possibly due to raised cortisol (stress hormone) levels.4
A 2013 study of resistance (weight) training and thyroid function showed "conflicting results",5 prompting a discussion that noted that, although an initial rise in exercise can lower thyroid hormone levels with the introduction of 'new stress', eventually levels are normalized or even increased as fitness develops.
This evidence all suggests that it's vital to perform regular medium-intensity exercise throughout life to both support thyroid function and reduce stress levels.
Much of the research into exercise and thyroid health has focused only on thyroid output and metabolic rates, dismissing activities like yoga because it doesn't increase the rate of caloric burn. But, of course, it all depends on how you practise a gentler exercise system like yoga, t'ai chi or Pilates. Furthermore, providing support to the thyroid through movement isn't achieved simply by a boost in hormone output in response to a specific challenge, but rather in your body's ability to regulate metabolism appropriately between periods of activity and rest.
A 2016 pilot study of 22 women, aged 30-40 with hypothyroidism and all taking thyroxine, charted the effects of practising yoga for one hour a day, four days a week, on thyroid hormone levels.6 After six months, the women showed a "significant reduction" in their need for medication. A bigger study compared 111 perimenopausal women doing 45 minutes a day of yoga with 105 women doing regular exercise for the same amount of time. After 12 weeks, thyroid hormone levels stayed the same in both groups, but cortisol levels were significantly lowered in the yoga group.7 This may have long-term effects on the thyroid, adrenal and pituitary glands, all of which affect the body's metabolic rate.
Key pointers for those with low thyroid function
If you prefer doing exercise in the morning, this could be thyroid-related as the gland works better in the morning with exercise—but be mindful not to overdo this, and be sure to stretch thoroughly afterwards to bring stress hormones down.
Tiredness in the morning is more thyroid-related but, in the afternoon, is more adrenal (stress)-related; you can support the adrenals through either stress relief or active rest.
Walk daily for a minimum of 15 minutes and, if possible, more than once a day. This is the most natural human movement, and it's necessary for lymphatic flow and loosening up the body's fascia (connective tissue) from the feet up through the inner legs and core (deep front line), and on to the throat.
Being sedentary for long periods of time lowers metabolism as the thyroid is then told that little energy is needed for movement.
Moving the neck while lying down eliminates the tension needed to lift the heavy head up from the floor. Lying with knees bent, feet a hip-width apart, roll the head to one side as you exhale and bring it back to centre as you inhale (see top right). Spend a good few minutes doing this and, when you feel the tissues becoming free down the spine, add a twist, with the knees falling to the opposite side as the head on the out-breath, sighing out any tension (see right).
This 'gravity' pose (see left) allows tension in the spine to decompress and blood to flow to the thyroid. First, lift just the arms and feel their weight releasing tension in the shoulders and neck. Wriggle into them (while moving the head) and, when it feels right, lift the legs, keeping the knees soft, to where your lower back feels happy.
Freeing tissues and fluids to the thyroid
Creating elasticity through the fascia from the lower spine up into the neck encourages circulation to the thyroid and surrounding tissues. In these spinal undulating movements, filling the lungs as the chest is lifted and drawing the chin towards the chest creates compression around the thyroid that will then allow a flood of fluids there when the compression is released.
• From the same supine position as above, inhale while arching the back and raising the belly, lifting at the waist and bringing the tailbone down towards the ground.
• On exhalation, let the chest and belly drop as your lungs empty.
• Repeat and, as the motion becomes freer, allow your chin to move down to meet your chest as you breathe in, while pointing it to the ceiling as you exhale.
• As the movement and breathing synchronize, you can increase the wave-like effect by lifting the balls of your feet as you inhale and lifting the heels as you exhale.
• Continue this movement for as long as it feels right, then stop to feel the ripples in the breaths that follow.
The same chin-to-chest movement is found in the Bridge Pose. The version here (see bottom right) lifts the arms up and over the shoulders to focus more strongly on the throat, as the shoulder blades are then lifted up towards the thyroid.
• Lying with both feet on the floor, feel good contact at the bases of the big toes so that, as you inhale and bring the arms up and over the shoulders, you can direct the lift into the chest rather than the lower back. Open the arms as wide as the shoulders and hold until they can drop to the floor and still feel comfortable.
• On the exhale, drop the spine—vertebra by vertebra—down to the floor again, hands coming to meet the ground at the same time as the tailbone.
• Lift up and down for as long as your breath can stay long and relaxed, your face and jaw soft; eventually, you can hold the lifted pose for as long as you feel neither stress nor strain.
Return to the gravity pose (see above) to decompress the spine.
There has been some discussion of thyroid issues being related to neck injuries, particularly whiplash after trauma like a car crash.8
Whether this is part of your medical history or not, modern-lifestyle hunched postural patterns tend to create tension in the neck from looking down at phones or sitting at a desk.
A free, natural movement in the neck can create elasticity in the thyroid area, and encourage circulation for nutrient and oxygen delivery, toxin removal and the delivery of thyroid hormones to the rest of the body.
Dynamic opening up from the ground
From a lunge position with the heel of the front foot under the front knee and feet a hip-width apart, keep the back knee on the ground as you lift up from the lower belly and open up the chest. Raise your arms above your shoulders or open out to the sides, whichever position softens the inner edges of the shoulders blades (see
Lift the back and sides of the neck to open up the throat without compression at the base of the skull—where we tend to create a lot of tension impeding thyroid circulation by hunching over and then lifting the chin to look up.
Follow this with a twist (see bottom right) while inhaling up the spine and turning the belly towards the inner thigh of the front leg. While retaining good grounding through the front foot and shin, lift the chest and open up the collarbones. Breathe fully to relieve any stress in the neck and shoulders.
Opening the front body fully
Create a similar body shape to a strong lunge by coming into a back bend that naturally opens the throat. The Bow Pose below positions the shoulders so they open the thyroid area without tension and loosen up the area between the shoulder blades, where we often hold a lot of physical and emotional tension. Breathe to feel the pose while rocking naturally on your belly; you can do one leg at a time if it feels stronger than your range of motion allows.
Release the Bow and, after lying face down and rolling the hips to release the lower back, return to the gravity pose to decompress the spine.
Twisting to free tissues in the throat and neck
In any comfortable seated position (even on a chair) where you can easily lift up through the spine, move into a twist from the belly, and spend a few moments feeling the neck and throat floating up above the ribs and opening up the collarbones (see right). Then rotate the head in the opposite direction, chin over the front shoulder, to increase circulation around the collarbones and to stimulate the lymphatic nodes there to support immune function around the thyroid. Do this movement with an open, releasing (sighing) breath to avoid creating tension in the shoulders.
Resting inverted pose for blood flow and stress reduction
The pose below supports you while your world is 'turned upside-down', so allowing blood flow back to the thyroid as well as the head and heart, making it fully restful. Placing a low bolster (or stack of folded blankets or towels) a little away from a chair seat, sit on the bolster, then swing your calves up onto the seat, tucking your bottom under to fully support the back of your pelvis. Lower your upper body down to the ground, chin tucked in to avoid straining your neck muscles, and place your arms wherever they are most comfortable. After around 15 minutes or when you feel 'cooked', curl your body to one side and stay there for a while before sitting up.