Read Time: 15 minutes – (This is part 1 of a 3 part series on exercise and hair loss)
Exercise – More Isn’t Always Better
The benefits of exercise have been touted for decades, and intuitively, the idea makes sense. To live longer, you should exercise your heart. It’s a simple concept…
But some people take exercise too far. We know the types – the gym warrior who spends hours lifting heavy weights, carrying around a gallon of water and finishing off the workout with the latest creatine-infused recovery protein shake. Or maybe you can personally identify with the chronic cardio enthusiasts – those who can’t stop peddling or running until they reach 60 minutes on a stationary machine.
I used to fall under both categories. I wanted to be as healthy as possible, so I pushed myself to exhaustion as often as possible. The harder the workouts, the better the payoff. Or so I thought…
I didn’t realize that my exercise habits might have been contributing to my hair thinning until years later.
That’s why I wrote this article series. This is a three-part series on exercise and hair loss. By the end, we’ll uncover:
- The Exercise-Hair Loss Connection: how chronic cardio is connected to conditions ranging from heart disease to hair loss
- Hormonal Balance: which exercises trigger hormonal imbalances, which don’t, and why this is important for our hair health
- The Ultimate Exercise Guide: how to exercise intelligently – for your body and your hair
Don’t want to flip through all three articles? They’re also part of an Exercise-Hair Loss Guide. You can access the entire guide below.
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Important Note: this article was last updated in 2014. Since then, my ideas have evolved, and new research has come out exploring exercise and its potential involvement with hair loss disorders. These updates have not yet been incorporated into this article series, and so anything expressed here should be considered (somewhat) dated.
The Exercise-Hair Loss Connection
Exercise is a tricky subject. Depending on your goals – weight loss, physical attractiveness, or fitness – exercise can help. But more isn’t always better. Sometimes those who exercise don’t always lose weight. Sometimes endurance athletes are less healthy than their sedentary counterparts.
Even more confusing, there’s no magic number of workouts per week to obtain optimal health. Some of the heaviest exercisers I know look the unhealthiest. Some of my friends who don’t exercise at all look fantastic.
There is one thing about exercise that is very clear: too much exercise opens the door to cardiovascular disease, a compromised immune system, hypothyroidism, and hormonal imbalances, thereby creating the conditions that precipitate hair loss.
This series covers exercise in the context of my own health and body, and how chronic and excessive exercise can exacerbate a number of health issues, including:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Atrial Fibrillation
- Systemic Inflammation
- Hair Loss
Breaking Down Exercise Into The Fundamentals – Aerobic vs. Anaerobic
If you could only categorize exercise into two categories, it would be anaerobic and aerobic.
Aerobic exercise is the action of burning energy at a slightly elevated heart rate for long periods of time. Your body still has access to ample amounts of oxygen, and uses it – along with your fat reserves – to burn the energy required for the additional expenditure on your body.
If you’re walking around town, jogging lightly, or moving frequently throughout the day, you’re likely utilizing your aerobic system. If you’re working at 60-70% of your maximum heart rate, you’re likely in the range of aerobic conditioning. This is a zone in which many people can exercise comfortably for hours.
Anaerobic exercise is the energy system you use in the absence of an ample oxygen supply. Instead of burning fat, your body utilizes glycogen stores and creates the byproduct lactic acid (the cause of the muscle burn you feel after a hard workout). If you’re pushing your body hard – like in weight lifting, competing, sprinting, etc. – you’re likely tapping into this system. The exact numbers vary, but most people switch to anaerobic when reaching 75-80% of their maximum heart rate.
The second system – anaerobic – is used in periods of physical intensity for briefer periods of time. But depending on a person’s conditioning, some people can train themselves to tolerate and adapt to an anaerobic state for longer periods.
For instance, when competing as an athlete in college, I once maintained an average heart rate of 186 bpm for 35 minutes during a team run, and that was outside of competition. If you’re consistently activating your anaerobic system, it can eventually become more efficient, enabling you to maintain higher heart rates and harder workouts for longer periods.
(By the way, that’s NOT healthy. To average 92% of my maximum heart rate for 35 minutes means my heart rate was substantially higher than 186 bpm for at least half that period of time. If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have been so surprised when I developed heart palpitations and symptoms of exhaustion the following season. I wasn’t training smart, and I paid the price five months later.)
How You Exercise Both Systems Matters
Depending on your objectives, activating both systems is good for your body, but there’s always an upper limit. This is especially true if your goals are to reverse calcification, reduce systemic inflammation, establish hormonal balance, and promote optimal thyroid health – all of which are integral to hair regrowth.
To do this, you need to be wary of how you exercise your aerobic and anaerobic systems.
Don’t Abuse Anaerobic Exercise
Anaerobic activity sustained for longer periods of time on a recurring basis can actually generate chronic systemic inflammation.
Chronic systemic inflammation can damage your heart and create the bodily conditions necessary for calcification and thyroid suppression, which can eventually culminate to poor overall health and hair loss.
This type of overtraining is known as chronic cardio, and it’s worth avoiding if your health, longevity, immunity, and hair are important to you.
What Is Chronic Cardio, Exactly?
Chronic cardio is when people maintain a heart rate beyond their aerobic threshold for long periods of time (30 minutes+). I used to access my anaerobic system almost every workout session, nearly everyday, for 5 years. At the same time, my thyroid was so suppressed that my body temperature consistently read 96.7 degrees at every doctor’s appointment. I chocked it up to normal, thinking I was training effectively and that some people just have low body temperatures. Little did I know that my training regimen was actually contributing to systemic inflammation, hypothyroidism, and hormonal imbalances that exacerbated my early hair loss.
Chronic (Excessive) Cardio Can Lead To Myocardial Damage & Heart Disease
The study was cited earlier, but it’s worth reading for yourself. A group of marathon runners (average age 57) with absolutely no symptoms of atherosclerosis or heart disease were tested for heart scarring using an LGE test (regarded as the most accurate way to detect damage and scarring to the cardiovascular system). To qualify for the study, these marathoners had to run at least 5 marathons in the last 3 years. Ostensibly, these runners should be of the healthiest human beings on the planet. So what were the results?
12% of these marathoners had evidence of myocardial damage (read: heart attack), while only 4% of the “sedentary” control group had evidence of myocardial damage.
That’s not good at all. Even worse, the more a marathoner runs, the higher his or her chance of developing heart disease. We hear stories of long-distance runners collapsing or dying, but often dismiss these as unexplainable coincidences of misfortune. Could there really be a connection here? With the last 40 years of research telling us that long-term aerobic exercise is good, have we taken things too far?
How Does Chronic Cardio Damage The Heart?
The mechanisms behind excessive cardio and heart disease are still being explored. However, there is an emerging theory (it’s a bit of a mouthful to describe):
Chronic excessive cardio exercise taxes the body by creating an acute volume overload of the right atria and right ventricle. The right atria receives deoxygenated blood from your veins and pumps it to the right ventricle. This volume overload inhibits right ventricular ejection fraction, or in simpler terms, reduces the amount of blood being pumped to the lungs for oxygen.
A byproduct of this process is an increase in cardiac biomarkers – enzymes, hormones, and proteins in the blood – which are used to quantify the impact of stress on your heart after a heart attack.
In the absence of repeated anaerobic exercise, these biomarkers return to normal in seven to ten days. However, in the case of chronic anaerobic exercise, your body doesn’t recover. This can harbor serious health issues, like “diastolic dysfunction, large-artery wall stiffening and coronary artery calcification.”
Chronic Cardio & Atrial Fibrillation
Excess Exercise And Heart Palpitations – Is There A Connection?
Chronic cardio is associated with systemic inflammation and calcification, but may also be connected to atrial fibrillation (ie: an irregular heartbeat).
Researchers believe atrial fibrillation is caused by chronically increased cardiac biomarkers (the result of excessive cardio training) and fibrosis (the formation of heart scar tissue, as the result of systemic inflammation).
So, the output of chronic cardio aligns with the causes of atrial fibrillation. I haven’t found a study suggesting that chronic cardio causes atrial fibrillation, but I would say it’s definitely not out of the question. I definitely experienced heart palpitations when overtraining in college.
Remember, this is the result of pinning your heart rate high for long periods of time, on a frequent basis, for months or years. The same results aren’t found from those who exercise by moving around slowly, or weight lifting occasionally, or playing. That discussion is being saved for next week’s article.
How Is “Chronic Cardio” Connected To Hair Loss?
I’ve written about calcification’s role in hair loss here and here. The gist: those with thinning hair show signs of calcification surrounding the blood vessels that support the scalp’s hair follicles. Research shows a strong correlation between arterial calcification and heart disease – calcification reduces blood flow and limits oxygen supply to tissues. So, it should be no surprise that calcification is also connected to pattern hair loss. It’s all a part of the same problem.
Summarizing Part 1/3
Chronic cardio increases cardiac biomarkers, which in the absence of recovery, do not return to normal levels. Over time, these elevated biomarkers (think of them as inflammatory biomarkers) lead to arterial stiffening and calcification. Calcification inhibits blood flow to the heart (and any other tissue in which it is present). Calcification of the scalp is observed in people with thinning hair, and hair loss is partially due to a reduction of oxygenation and blood flow to the scalp. So, chronic cardio indirectly promotes the conditions required for hair loss.
Chronic Cardio > Increase Cardiac Biomarkers > Unresolved Systemic Inflammation > Increased Arterial Calcification & Fibrosis > Reduced Blood Flow & Oxygen To Affected Areas > Hair Loss
This is part 1 of a 3 part series about exercise and hair loss. The second article covers the relationship between hormones and exercise, and how exercise can either help or hinder your testosterone:estrogen levels. The final article discusses how to optimize your exercise routine to minimize calcification, balance hormone levels, reduce stress, and promote the conditions necessary for hair regrowth.
Rob English is a researcher, medical editor, and the founder of perfecthairhealth.com. He acts as a peer reviewer for scholarly journals and has published five peer-reviewed papers on androgenic alopecia. He writes regularly about the science behind hair loss (and hair growth). Feel free to browse his long-form articles and publications throughout this site.