Exercising with Fatigue or Low Thyroid Function

This is a guest post by my friend and fitness enthusiast, Jen Sinkler.

When fatigue is your constant companion, the idea of moving more than you already do can seem impossible, if not outright offensive. “Exercise? Lift weights? Are you insane? I can barely get out of bed!”

If this is what your body is saying to you, listen to it. And if getting out of bed really is a challenge, seek clinical support first and foremost. 

But if you are able to get out of bed, to get yourself to work and back, to conquer the four small steps outside your front door, you’re already moving — and adding more purpose and structure to your movements with a training program doesn’t have to involve much more than that. At least in the beginning.

Exercising with fatigue or low thyroid function is about progressing slowly, making the movements work for you (not the other way around), listening to your body, and not adding unnecessary stress to your system. (White-knuckle workouts cause a spike in stress hormones, which can mess up your whole bod and thwart all your best efforts.)

Another important factor? Acknowledging that what you’re already doing counts. Because it does. And if you’re able to do just a little bit more (and I’m going to talk you through easy ways to make that happen later in this post), that’s great, too.

With that, let’s get to the heart of the matter: how to move a little — or a little bit more — when you’re struggling with fatigue and/or low thyroid function.

This advice is all about how you can make a strength training program work for you right here now now. It was born out of a conversation I had with “Cardigan Mark” Schneider, one of my fellow coaches at The Movement Minneapolis and a longtime educational support person for functional medicine doctors nationwide.

#1. Give yourself credit for the things you’re already doing. If you can walk from your bed to the bathroom, if you can sit down in a chair and stand back up, you are already moving and training. You are doing it, and you deserve props for that.

If you start feeling guilty or anxious that you’re not doing “enough,” try to focus on the process instead of the end result. Remind yourself that you are starting out where literally everyone else in the world started out — at your beginning. (No one, and I mean no one, was born doing Olympic lifts.)

You are where everyone else in the world has been or will be. So welcome to the party and congratulations on getting this journey started.

#2. Start with “real life” versions of each exercise. When you boil each exercise down to its essential core, you will realize it is something you are already doing.

Take sitting in a chair and standing back up. This is essentially the same movement required for squatting. So if sitting and standing back up feels like your limit right now, then turn that into your training. Try sitting and standing twice instead of once, and then try doing it three times.

And just like that, you’ve made progress.

Can you reach down and pick up your laundry basket? You’re deadlifting. Now do it twice instead of once and see how you feel. If a full laundry basket is too much, lift an empty one. If that is too much, just make the motion but don’t pick up anything.

When you think of everyday life as a circuit, you realize that exercise is a matter of focus and degree. It is not something being done only by perfectly outfitted people in perfectly sparkling gyms with perfectly shiny equipment. It is being done by you, right now, today. And when you add a rep here (by sitting-and-standing one more time), or a bit of weight there (such as that empty basket), you are training like a boss.

You are living life faster, and, in the end, that’s what my philosophy in my program, Lift Weights Faster 2, is all about. It’s a program that helps you get stronger so you can move the way you want to move in your daily life.

#3. Track, track, track. It’s not sexy advice, but it works. And it’s how you’re going to know you’re making progress. 

Here’s why it matters: It can be easy to start thinking, “Okay, fine, I’m sitting and standing, but that’s all I’m doing.”

If you been tracking your progress, however, you can look down at your journal and see that in just two weeks you went from sitting and standing twice, to sitting and standing 15 consecutive times. That’s huge progress — progress that might have otherwise been invisible to you if you didn’t write it down.

If adding reps seems out of reach, work with time. Track how long it takes you to walk from your bedroom to your bathroom, or your house to your car, or your car to your office. Then see if you can improve that time a little every day. Write down how long the trip(s) take you.

The equipment needed for this — a good, old-fashioned notebook and pencil — are cheap. But the payoff is priceless.

#4 Modify, modify, modify. You have more energy and you’re ready to start with more structured exercises. Great! The key here is to make them work for you by modifying them.

Let’s use the pushup as an example. If the full, hands-on-floor version is too much, you can start by doing them against a wall or with your hands elevated on a box. If that is too much, simply try lying in bed, on your stomach, and pushing your torso and shoulders up.

At my gym, The Movement Minneapolis, we don’t think of these modifications as regressions. We like to call them “pregressions.” It’s all about doing the version that is right for you.

A lot of people might not want you to adjust their training program to suit your needs. They want you to do it exactly as written. I, on the other hand, am begging you to adjust Lift Weights Faster 2 as needed.

The only way any training program will be effective is if it is customized for the individual. I encourage — no, I insist — that you go to town modifying these movements, scaling them back to the essentials (sitting and standing, picking something off the floor, hands-elevated pushups, etc.) to meet yourself where you are right now.

And keep tracking your progress. It’s rewarding to see how much and how quickly you are pregressing toward the full exercise.  

#5. Do fewer reps. Let’s say you can do the moves, but not the total number of reps assigned in a workout. Still great! Cut that number in half. Or cut it by three-quarters. Do what works, and keep tracking your progress.

#6. Do fewer rounds. The advice in the #5? Ditto here.

#7. Use the next day as your guide. How will you know if you’ve done too little, or too much, or just enough? You are going to use how you feel the next day as your guide.

If you did some moving around yesterday (and you will know what type of moving you did because you are tracking your moves), and you feel good the next day, you did the right amount.

What do I mean by “good”? I mean that you have some level of energy that is better than before. If you’re so fatigued that even the idea of “better” seems laughable, look for an amount of energy, or a feeling in your body, that seems “slightly more manageable.”

Remember, too, that it’s not just movements that contribute to how you feel the next day. It’s the rest of your life — who you spent time with, how much you rested, what you ate. Identify as many key elements as you can that contributed to your feeling good the next day and then prioritize those movements, activities, people, places, and foods.

Now, if you have less energy the next day, add more recovery. Do less. Dial things back. That isn’t taking a step backward. It’s doing what right for you right now so that, ultimately, you can take 1,776 steps forward.

Jen Sinkler is a longtime fitness writer for national magazines such as Women’s Health and Men’s Health. A former member of the U.S. national women’s rugby team, she currently trains clients at The Movement Minneapolis. Jen talks fitness, food, happy life and general health topics at her website, www.jensinkler.com.


Thank you for posting this. I’ve gained 75 pounds with thyroid disease over the past four years, and I just went to the gym for the first time ever today. 

Good for you, Wendy!

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