Women with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) deal with a lot of uncertainty in their life. Between hormonal ups and downs, unpredictable weight gain, painful cyst ruptures, and infertility worries, their bodies are often under a lot of stress! A common symptom of PCOS is having a hard time losing weight — many women find themselves frustrated (or in pain) from traditional workout plans.
I sat down with Nikki Pebbles, a certified personal trainer and group fitness coach, to talk about the kind of workouts that are best for women who are dealing with PCOS.
What is your personal experience with PCOS?
I don't personally have PCOS. I deal with more of the thyroid range of things — my mom, cousin, and uncle all have under-active thyroids. But I do have experience with ups and downs in hormone health. When I had my first experience with bad hormone health four or five years ago, I tried everything to get it under control.
Now, fast forward to when the pandemic happened and I jumped on TikTok and started doing workout videos.
I'm a big believer in low-impact workouts. Whether you have endometriosis, PCOS, hormonal issues, or anything else that stresses out your body, your body is already in a massive state of stress. When you're doing high-impact workouts (not HIIT, that means high intensity), you're putting more stress on your body. Adding more stress to your already-stressed body is not ideal, so low-impact workouts and strength workouts help balance and calm your hormones.
When I discovered that, I started sharing my low-impact workouts. One of my clients has PCOS — I realized that there isn't really a lot on PCOS and fitness. When I found this out, I took some courses on nutrition and read some studies to educate myself. I then started labeling workouts "PCOS friendly," because it's low-impact, helpful, and brings inclusivity to the workout. Women with PCOS need to be able to find things that actually help them and are considerate of their condition!
Have you had people reach out to you with feedback for these workouts?
I have my virtual gym that I really work at making "hormone-friendly." About 80% of the people who are in that program have endometriosis, PCOS, or struggle with hormone issues. I don't want to make it about weight loss, but I do want to make it about function. Thanks to these workouts, I have had so many people who have been able to lose weight for function.
A lot of women really struggle with fertility. One of my clients has this experience, but after getting on a routine with low-impact workouts, she's begun ovulating again:
"After doing your workouts, I've been able to ovulate for the last three months — something I haven't been able to do in seven years. We're looking forward to hopefully having a baby soon. Thanks so much for your workouts, they literally saved my life."
That is so cool and so exciting for me to hear — that workouts can actually make a huge difference in someone's life. My major goal is to make it super accessible. When you're coming from a point of working out where your body is normally in pain and then you realize that you can do it — that is amazing.
A lot of women with PCOS have a hard time losing weight. The old school version of this is just burning as many calories as possible.
I think a lot of people don't get that we're taught how strength training — especially for women — means "getting bulky." But strength training is the best thing you can do for your body! When you do cardio, you only burn when you're doing cardio. When you lift weights and do strength training, your body is still working long after the workout is done.
So many women think "Oh I wanna lose weight? Let me run a bunch!" But that's not the way to do it. Strength training is the best thing you can do for your body, whether you have hormone issues or not!
A lot of your workouts are pretty short! Why is that?
In my virtual gym, the longest class is 30 minutes and the shortest class is 10 minutes. I like to give people different options. If someone goes in and does a 15-minute Ariana Grande arm workout, they can easily add another short workout depending on what they feel like that day.
One of the biggest fitness myths is that you have to work out for an hour, or an hour and a half, every day to see results. That's just not true! It's also overwhelming for a lot of people to see that timeframe, but you can get a very effective workout in 15 or 20 minutes. My goal is to get people excited (and comfortable) with moving their bodies.
We're also all really busy! But we can do a 15-minute workout on a regular basis.
Especially with hormone balance, small sustainable habits are key! Many women I've talked to have tried drastic things, but they don't keep up with them. You mentioned you'd taken some nutrition courses, what are some key hormone health takeaways that you had from those?
Well, I have a psychology background, so I look at nutrition (and fitness) from that angle first and foremost. When it comes to nutrition, no one really looks at the psychology around food. When you have a hormone imbalance, you already feel really frustrated and you just really want something to work. I've dealt with those hormone issues — I get it! I'll get really bloated whether I eat a salad or something else. It's easy to spiral.
I look at the function around food — the point is not to be scared of food! General advice (like cut out gluten, cut out dairy) for hormone nutrition is tricky since everyone is so different, so I try to stay away from that.
I think a majority of people have a toxic relationship with food, and I think that's the first thing that needs to be fixed before you jump into more nutrition-specific advice.
So say someone was just diagnosed with PCOS and they start following all those Instagram accounts for PCOS diets, PCOS weight loss, PCOS fertility...how do they weed through the masses and find the good ones?
Ooh, that's a hard question — there's so much information and also not enough! Or I should say there's not enough credible information. A lot of these accounts are personal experiences, which is great, but those personal experiences aren't certified. Find people who are actually credible, not only speaking from their one experience. Find registered dietitians. For instance, I have a certificate in nutrition, but I am not a registered dietician.
I always tell clients to find a registered dietician that is also anti-diet culture and pro-body positivity. Go to a credible source!
Everyone is going to be different, but look for the certification and THEN look for relatability. Go ahead and ask them their credentials if they don't automatically share! It can be too overwhelming if you try to take in everything.
What do you think is the biggest, most important thing for women with PCOS to remember as they begin to form their own workout habits?
You have to create this idea in your head that you're working out because you want to function better — not because you think being a certain size or looking a certain way is going to fix all of your problems. Come from a place where it's not an "all or nothing." You need to work out because you want to feel better, it's fun, and you're in a safe environment. I've had so many people talk to me about their horrendous workout experiences.
First and foremost, make sure you're focused on feeling good and feeling functional. Being in a smaller body doesn't mean your life is going to completely change. It's about just helping yourself feel better — this is also different for everybody! So don't waste your time comparing yourself to others. Own your fitness journey.
You're getting stronger every single day — right now you're powerful! You're just building on that power you already have. You're looking for long-term sustainability so you can create a really great relationship with food, fitness, and yourself.
You can find Nikki Pebbles on Instagram and TikTok @nikkipebbles. You can also workout with her at her virtual gym, Rock Your Body Online.