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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You'll also get my recommendations on which exercises hurt our hormones, which don't, and which you should focus on to keep your health (and hair).
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.
28 thoughts on “Part 1 of 3: The Exercise And Hair Loss Connection”
Great Article! Can’t wait for the next two installments.
So you’re saying the reason calcification causes hair loss is that it reduces blood flow to hair follicles. Would that essentially mean that for someone with Male Pattern Baldness living a sedentary lifestyle, increasing their level of exercise (from sedentary to regular, still below the level of chronic cardio) would decrease their hair loss? With that, I would imagine that the increased blood flow would have an effect on the hair cells, no?
Hey Alex – the challenge with calcification / fibrosis is that once it’s there, it’s much more difficult to get rid of, which means that increasing from a sedentary to regular lifestyle usually isn’t enough to reverse the process. So while you might increase blood flow during your workouts, chances are that blood is still inhibited in those scalp areas where calcification is present.
With that said, if you can get increased blood flow to the affected follicles via massage or other means, that’s a step in the right direction. And adequate exercise, in general, is a step in the right direction (not for hair, but for health overall).
Hello, so my hair is starting to thin a little bit on the left temple and I want to save it and grow it thicker. I also have psoriasis and recently it has slown down a bit so hopefully my hair can start to grow back thicker a bit. I usually don’t use any shampoo just conditioner and I never touch my hairline when rinsing, just the areas around it. If you could please be willing to help me save my hair, I will greatly appreciate it. Thank you
Hey Derek – I reached out via your other comment, but let me know if anything else comes up.
Thanking you for your work won’t be enough, still, thank you.
I have a question regarding the detumescence therapy: when the hairloss is stopped and hair regrown, along with the right dietary changes, could one say that the whole pathological process was reversed? Could one stop the massage and maintain his/her natural spontaneous growth of hair with only the right diet afterwards? Or does it mean the result of the massage is only temporary and DHT will eclipse the good effects of the massage. Forgive me but detumescent therapy, to me, sounds like “forcing your hair to grow” and when the results are achieved and the method stopped, the hair would resume its pathology. Please correct me if I am wrong.
Sorry for the long message,
Thanks in advance!
Thanks for the message. It’s tough to answer since everyone’s different. Speaking for myself, after over a year of progress I dropped my massage frequency down to once every two or three days and for 5-10 minutes. The result: no real differences in hair quality. Based off others’ experience, maintenance is much easier than regrowth, so we can suspect that the epigenetic changes to the scalp tend to stay (at least temporarily) from the right massages for the right duration, even after you drop their frequency. With that said, I’m sure it’s possible for somebody to abandon the massages entirely, binge eat for years and eventually reverse all progress.
I hope this helps! Let me know if anything else comes up.
Your article refers at several points to arterial fibrillation. I believe you mean “atrial fibrillation”.
Thank you Rebecca! Update made.
Hi Rob, when will your ebook actually come out? I am interested to purchase it.
Hair is thinning out and I want to save it as soon as I can. I really don’t understand why I am thinning out at the back and the temples area when genetically speaking I should not even be balding!
My mom and dad side has no history of hair loss whatsoever so its really depressing that it seems to be the only thing happening to me.
For months I’ve been finding ways to cure it without having to resort to options like rogaine, finasteride and other drugs that cause nasty side effects.
I am currently using nizoral, its right about 2 months but hair seems to have gotten worse at my point of view.
I am desperate and would try anything over what I read that could cure it naturally. I am trying the NOFAP cure as well. I would however be interested to use your method along with it.
P.S. I am actually doing P90X3 exercise for what seems to be around 2 years now. Exercising 30 mins a day. Is that a harmful thing?
Hey Roy – hair loss isn’t 100% genetic, so family history isn’t always the best indicator of your likeliness to develop it. The new book will give you the assessment tools you need to determine which treatments are useful, which aren’t, and why. As far as P90X3, I’d just check the articles here on exercise and hair loss and see if your routine falls into the type of exercises that might be negatively affecting your hormonal balance.
Thank you for answering!! When’s the estimated release? 🙂
What can you tell me about genetic hair thinning and diffuse hair thinning in women? What is the cause of these two conditions? I thought genetic hair loss was due to DHT and I just saw an endocrinologist and thought for sure that he would prescribe an anti-androgen as I assumed that it was PCOS that was causing my hair loss, as PCOS means that there is high testosterone, etc. But, since my blood sugar has come down from 112 to 95, I do not have PCOS or insulin resistance according to the doctor. I was pre-diabetic last year and have gained a lot of weight, gorging on desserts and other high carb foods, due to anxiety, stress and depression. I had an ultrasound that showed ovarian cysts and I do have tons of skin tags which are all symptoms of PCOS. However, my testosterone is normal, thyroid numbers were all in the normal mid to upper levels, my iron was 39 which is just a little below normal and thanks to vitamin d supplements, my vitamin d has gone from 3 to 14. This is still very low but will hopefully continue to increase.
The endocrinologist is referring me to a dermatologist to get a diagnosis. I thought it would be the other way around. The endo said that the hair loss could simply be “GENETIC”. Which is why I am confused, bc I thought that the genetic component meant that there was genetic sensitivity to DHT, not just inherited unexplained thinning and the doctor said that this is not the case for me based on my bloodwork. If it is simply genetic, what can I do to stop and reverse this? Will anything get my hair to start growing again? Will the dermaroller and DT work for a genetic condition?
My sister keeps telling me that my hair is thinning bc I am not doing enough hard exercise and that it’s all about circulation. Well, I was exercising all through September when my hair outright stopped growing. (I do some weightlifting/cardio videos and a little HIIT video and walk for 1 hour, not power walking — so I don’t think it counts as chronic cardio, although some of the videos are really tough). My hair has been getting progressively thinner for almost 4 years and now has just completely stopped growing. Could the high sugar food have stunted my hair growth? Could stress have stunted the hair growth? Is hair loss due to stress reversible with your program?
I am taking the following supplements right now:
green tea extract
pumpkin seed oil
a DHT blocking hair supplement
and I am adding the following supplements once they arrive:
black currant seed oil
a multi vitamin powder that has 1000 mg vitamin c plus a bunch of other vitamins
I am thinking about trying Viviscal. I am so upset, I don’t know what to do. I thought that I would’ve seen some results with the things I am already taking, but nothing. I have been taking them since the beginning of October.
Can you please email me and tell me what you think? I am also using nizoral and just added a shampoo that has jamaican castor oil and peppermint. I also have been using some essential oils/jojoba oil topically but this makes my hair look so much worse even after I wash it all out. Should I hang upside down 20 minutes a day?
I also bought a dermaroller but have not started to use it yet.
Do you think that maybe your program only works on traditional male pattern baldness? Or can it work in my case? I do try to massage my scalp and do the scalp exercises that Tom Hagerty recommends. I have not been consistent tho and I am so doubtful as to whether these methods will work for me. My mother as well as my 2 uncles and cousin have hair thinning. I feel like my hair is following the same thinning pattern as my mother’s, which is really bad. I don’t know what her diagnosis was but it was decades ago and she occasionally tries shampoos for thinning hair but has never tried medications or minodoxil bc she is anti medication/chemicals.
Please email me and tell me what you think. I have left you some questions under the comments sections of other articles, so this all may sound familiar.
I may have to wait a few weeks before I can see a dermatologist and I don’t want to continue losing hair before then.
Thanks Ericka. I’ll reach out to you through email.
I am only reading this in may 2019 but am very interested in the answer you gave Ericka. Could you help, please
Great article. I wanted to ask that I am following your massage for months now. And one thing I noticed is that when I rigourously massage my head, the corner of the left temple (which is thinning rapidly) feels pain. I mean I massage all over the head but only that portion feels that pain. So I was thinking that if it’s coz of DHT trapped there or something like that. Is this is good sign that I am going good with the massage or just a random stuff.or any thing I am doing wrong.
Hey Sans — it’s tough to say what the source of the pain is. My first instinct is that it could be a fungal infection. Have you tried any topicals that are anti-fungal? Rosemary oil comes to mind.
Intense massages might exacerbate the pain, so I’d go easier in that region until you find that the pain begins to resolve.
I think I am going good with massages. Though the condition of my hair is worst site I started 1year back. I think the problem is that I have not considered dietary changes to my regime. I am from India and eat carbohydrates, wheat, flour, diary and milk products and eggs and chicken more. I am totally naive about what type of diet to follow. Considering that there are numerous factors to be considered. Could you give me a starting point as to how I should plan my diet. Also is inflammation is the cause of increased dandruff in my scalp?
Sans – it’s tough for me to help since it sounds like you’re doing your own rendition of the massages rather than the massage techniques highlighted inside the book. The book also covers which diet I’ve found to be most helpful in slowing / halting hair loss. If you’d rather continue to experiment without the guidance, that’s fine. For diet, I’d recommend you read these articles here:
Excess dandruff is often related to 1) massage technique, or 2) diet — specifically, a lacking consumption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. I’d reevaluate both of these and see if that helps.
I would like to email something personal to you. If you would not mind then please message me on this email.
Hey Sans – I have no problems communicating through email, but I’d rather you email me. Please sign up through any of the email optins and you’ll be given my email address.
Hi Rob! First off I wanted to thank you for all your hard work with the research and the ebook. The information that you have found and made easily accessible is awesome. I am a long time sufferer of diffuse thinning. I am 39 and started losing hair at 21.
I purchased your ebook and have read the ebook and begun to implement all the changes outlined in your book: diet, lifestyle, massages and microbiome. I am 2 days in and am 100% committed.
I have been currently going through a big hair shed. It’s scary and alarming. I’ve been going through this shed for a little over three weeks now. Most days I have to do a ton of self talk just to keep myself from going hysterical and crying.
My question is, is there a way to stop or slow down a hair shed once it’s started? I had thin hair to begin with but this shed is crazy and I am really trying to keep calm and be reasonable. I rexognize letting my emotions take over will not help my situation. Any advice at this point to help halt this crazy hair shed?
Thank you for your support to keep the site running. And I’m sorry to hear about your hair shedding. One thing I would look into (if you haven’t already) is getting tested for the following:
-SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth)
-PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome)
Nearly every female reader I’ve worked with has tested positive for at least one of those, and there’s some evidence that these conditions are more causative than associative when it comes to hair loss. It might be that one of these is driving your current bout of hair shedding.
Other drivers include caloric deficiencies, chronic stress, and a vitamin D deficiency. So if any of that sounds familiar, I’d work on course-correcting so that before trying to reverse the problem, we can begin to arrest the shedding.
Is boxing okay for your hair? I have baldness in my family and worry it may be too intense a workout that might contribute to hair loss?
As long as your workout routines fall within the parameters / recommendations of this three-part series, I don’t see an issue.