Education and Awareness, General, Patients, Women's Health

Managing the beast: How diet and exercise can positively affect PCOS

By Lauren Hasz, Writer

It is challenging not to panic when a doctor delivers a diagnosis of PCOS. Perhaps you and your partner have decided that you want to start a family, but this diagnosis sounds like an added layer of complication that you don’t want to interfere with conception. Perhaps you are currently immersed in your career, but have been considering what parenthood might look like.  Perhaps pregnancy is not anywhere near the top of your list of dreams, but you can’t seem to figure out your cycles and instead experience pain and unpredictable ovulation each month.

Although Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) is a serious condition and can result in infertility, unpleasant symptoms, and unpredictable cycles, you don’t need to panic or despair. Talking to your healthcare provider about possible medications/treatments and considering lifestyle changes can help control your symptoms and reduce the effects of PCOS. Although challenging, PCOS does not have to destroy your dreams or permanently harm your health.

Characteristics & Symptoms

By definition, PCOS is an endocrine disorder that can manifest itself in many ways, but it usually characterized by the formation of many small cysts in a woman’s ovaries each month (Herbert, n.d.). Two key components of the syndrome include elevated levels of the androgen hormone and infrequent or non-existent ovulation, both leading to symptoms varying as widely as excess facial/body hair to infertility (Herbert, n.d.). Additionally, PCOS often goes hand-in-hand with insulin resistance, which means that sufferers may be more prone to weight gain, specifically around the waist (, 2012). Various medications and treatments may be suggested by your doctor to help manage symptoms, but women are also encouraged to consider alterations to their lifestyles in order to give their bodies the best chance of alleviating the health issues associated with PCOS.

Lifestyle Changes

Combing through the research reveals that there are two primary lifestyle changes recommended by most experts:

(1) a healthy diet to manage weight and insulin levels and

(2) regular exercise.

According to Dr. Kovacs, a multicenter study conducted by Tang and colleagues revealed that lifestyle management, specifically weight loss in overweight patients, was nearly as effective in regulating individuals’ menstrual cycle as lifestyle management in combination with Metformin (a drug often prescribed to help manage insulin resistance) (Kovacs, 2006). Whether or not your cycle regulates through lifestyle changes alone, managing your weight through diet and exercise will benefit your overall health and, in turn, your hormones.

Sufferers of PCOS should specifically focus on a diet that is high in protein, healthy fats, fiber and complex carbohydrates, while low in simple carbohydrates. According to Alex Howard, founder of The Optimum Health Clinic, cutting out refined carbohydrates and sugars helps to manage blood sugar and insulin levels, specifically for those with insulin resistance (2009). Incorporating higher-fiber foods that help cleanse the bowels of excess hormones is also beneficial (2009).

Keep in mind that PCOS stems from hormonal imbalances and insulin resistance, so dietary changes should be aimed at helping to manage these two root causes. Attempt to pair lower glycemic index carbohydrates, which impact insulin levels less, with high-quality protein in order to help the body maintain balanced blood sugar levels throughout the day (Howard, 2009).

Perhaps even more important than diet in some women with PCOS is exercise. According to the PCOS Nutrition Center, new research seems to indicate that ovulation cycles are more quickly improved when exercise is incorporated into a woman’s daily routine instead of just diet modifications (n.d.). Why? Because exercise improves both body mass and the muscles’ response to insulin at the cellular level (, n.d.). It would appear that weight loss alone might not be the key to controlling PCOS, but rather using exercise to retrain the body to process insulin, gain lean muscle, and lose belly fat. It is thought that more efficient production and processing of insulin in combination with a leaner body are vital to controlling PCOS symptoms and regaining fertility.

According to Dr. Kovacks, women “with PCOS should be encouraged to follow a healthy diet and to engage in regular exercise. Their chance to achieve a pregnancy will improve and the risks during pregnancy will be reduced. A healthier lifestyle will also reduce their long-term risks for diabetes, hypertension, dyslipidemia, and cardiovascular disease” (2006).

In short – as you deal with all of the implications of PCOS, try to choose healthy food, turn off the technology, take a walk and allow yourself the freedom to let the stress melt away. Trying to get pregnant while struggling with PCOS is hard emotionally, mentally, and physically. Remember, that successful conception is very possible and trust that your body is capable of pregnancy.

Article Sources:

Herbert, Carl. (n.d.). Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Retrieved from

Howard, Alex. (2009). Lifestyle changes can make a difference to those with polycystic ovaries (Opinion). Retrieved from

Kovacs, Peter. (2006). Viewpoint: Lifestyle modification is first-line treatment for PCOS. Retrieved from (n.d.) Exercise and PCOS. Retrieved from (2012). Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) fact sheet. Office on Women’s Health: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from

Author Bio:

Lauren Hasz lives with her husband of nearly eight years and baby girl in Colorado where she pursues her interests as a writer, doula, teacher, runner, and all-manner of coffee and tea drinker. While known for her “flights of fancy” when the creative mood strikes her, she also enjoys researching and teaching when she is not playing with her daughter or enjoying time with her husband. A sufferer of infertility herself, her daughter Abby is her “miracle” baby.

Follow her story at

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