Read time: 20 minutes – (This is part 3 of a 3 part series on exercise and hair loss)
Exercise Is Integral To Healthy Living
Regular exercise is critical to maintaining good health and wellbeing. In the last two articles, I’ve only presented research showing exercise’s negative impacts on heart health and hormonal balance – a very one-sided argument. In the context of chronic anaerobic exercise and anything similar, that information is appropriate. But now, it’s time to talk about the other side of the coin.
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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.
Summarizing Parts 1 & 2
The Body’s Energy Systems
The body utilizes two main energy systems during exercise – the aerobic and anaerobic systems. At lower heart rates, the body mainly relies on the aerobic system and burns fat for fuel. At higher heart rates, the body taps into the anaerobic system and burns any available glycogen for energy. The transition from aerobic to anaerobic occurs when exerting significant effort (think: intense endurance races, sprints, and heavy weight lifting).
The Negative Health Effects Of Excessive Anaerobic Exercise
Many trainers and health enthusiasts advocate for high-intensity efforts at every workout session. These workouts might include long challenging runs, cardio weight circuits, heavy weight lifting, sprint intervals, or anything similar. This training approach regularly activates your anaerobic system for prolonged periods (30+ minutes). In the endurance world, this has been labeled as “chronic cardio”.
Research suggests that chronically activating your anaerobic system has a cumulative negative impact on overall health. This type of routine – excessive anaerobic exercise without adequate rest – harbors the following health consequences:
1) Systemic inflammation
2) Arterial calcification
3) Hormonal imbalances
More specifically, it’s been shown that chronic cardio, or frequently and recurrently taxing your anaerobic system through intense endurance exercise…
…increases your chances of arterial calcification and heart attack
…increases your chances of developing heart palpitations
…suppresses baseline testosterone levels
…increases cortisol production, the antagonist of testosterone
…suppresses baseline hGH levels
…precipitates the conditions necessary for hair loss
Chronic and excessive weight lifting has also been shown to have a similar impact on the body, suppressing baseline levels of testosterone and hGH. Not surprisingly, too much sprinting can also create similar hormonal imbalances by promoting excessive cortisol production and suppressing hGH secretion.
But Not All Exercise Is Bad
Exercise in the context of chronic cardio or anything similar is detrimental to your health. But while it’s easy to demonize exercise in the face of such research, it’s not fair to label all outputs of exercise as equal, or to lump an activity as dynamic as exercise into a single category.
This final installment of The Exercise And Hair Loss Connection highlights how to take advantage of your aerobic and anaerobic systems, and how exercising correctly can help reduce systemic inflammation, prevent arterial calcification, restore hormonal balance, and thereby aid in the fight against hair loss.
Specifically, this article focuses on how I approach fitness and health. If your goals are to reduce systemic inflammation and arterial calcification, correct hormonal imbalances, and create the conditions necessary for hair growth, this article will be helpful to you.
Using Exercise To Your Advantage
My fitness routine isn’t complicated. I don’t own a gym membership, and you won’t find me following any consistent workout regimen. Aside from walking, I exercise just two to three times a week and am still able to maintain the same physique I had as a collegiate athlete.
Because exercise is integrated into my lifestyle, it’s not something I constantly think about or feel compelled to do. If you change your perspective on what exercise constitutes and how it can help you, you’re more likely to make it a permanent part of your life and enjoy it.
At the base of my exercise regimen is one of the most basic forms of movement – walking.
The Benefits Of Walking
Low-level aerobic activity is critical for promoting proper fat metabolism, maintaining the functionality, density, and formation of capillary networks, and developing a good base level of cardio fitness. But walking is often overlooked as an unnecessary and time-consuming task among the fitness world. Why walk when you can jog, lift weights, or sprint and burn the same amount of calories in a quarter of the time?
Walking Activates & Strengthens Your Aerobic System
There’s obviously more to the story. Walking is an activity that only slightly elevates your heart rate. You don’t become as short of breath or perspire nearly as much as you would when exercising more vigorously, and as a result, you stay almost exclusively within your aerobic threshold. Frequent low-level activation of the aerobic system reaps two major bodily benefits:
Minimizing chronic systemic inflammation is crucial to arresting future hair loss and promoting the bodily conditions required for hair growth. Improving fat metabolism, reducing the risk of metabolic syndrome, and maintaining capillary capacity are also central to mitigating arterial calcification, which is also closely related to hair loss. Needless to say, walking is critical for good hair health, but also good health in general.
How Much Walking Is Enough?
The US Surgeon General suggests that 30-45 minutes of walking a day is enough to significantly reduce your risk of “coronary heart disease, hypertension, colon cancer, and diabetes”, but I think that’s on the conservative side. There’s evidence to suggest that 10,000 steps, or 5 miles everyday, will better aid in reductions in blood pressure, body mass index, and the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Unsurprisingly, in the US (where heart disease and type 2 diabetes are rampant), 25% of people are currently nearly fully sedentary. Walking has become a thing of the past.
How To Build Walking Into Your Routine
My suggestion is to walk as often as possible, and everywhere if possible. I live in San Francisco, and with the topography of the city, walking comes with the territory. In fact, I average between 4-5 miles over the city’s hills just to get through my daily routine. Here are a few tips:
- If you live in a city, always walk to the grocery store and to work. I have friends that walk as far as 4 miles in one direction to get to work everyday.
- Enjoy lunch breaks by walking to locations you would normally consider out-of-range.
- Plan weekend hiking trips with your friends and family.
- Take your dog for a walk as frequently as possible, if you have one.
It’s tremendously easy to build walking into your schedule, and once you do, it’s no longer an exercise, but rather a mode of transportation. It’s a chance to converse with a friend, reflect personally on your life, or make a phone call to a friend.
Walk everyday, everywhere, as often as possible. And when you’re ready for something slightly more intense, do something like yoga.
The Benefits Of Yoga
In the evenings when I have an opportunity for slightly more vigorous exercise, I often choose to do yoga. In San Francisco, there are a few power yoga studios with surprisingly intense classes.
I often find myself using the classes as an opportunity to practice deep breathing and meditative control. But beyond yoga’s physical and spiritual benefits, yoga has also been found to help with hormonal balance, and in more ways than one.
Yoga Helps Reduce Cortisol Secretion
Hair loss is associated with imbalanced testosterone:estrogen (t:e) levels in both men and women. For men, the imbalance is usually caused from a decline in testosterone production, which is the result of a variety of factors – diet and lifestyle being the main two.
Cortisol acts as an antagonist to testosterone, meaning excessive cortisol production can suppress testosterone levels and create (or worsen) the t:e ratio.
Regular yoga practice has been found to reduce cortisol levels, which indirectly benefits t:e levels for men by helping to mitigate testosterone suppression. Limiting excessive cortisol production helps promote proper thyroid function by restoring hormonal balance in men and creating the conditions necessary for hair regrowth.
Yoga Helps Restore Estrogen Levels In Peri-Menopausal Women
For women, an imbalance in testosterone:estrogen levels often comes during and after menopause. This happens due to a variety of factors – one of which being the loss of the ability to naturally deplete blood iron levels via the menstrual cycle. During and after menopause, women’s estrogen levels can decrease by as much as 90%.
Fortunately, regular yoga practice has shown to naturally increase estrogen levels in peri-menopausal women. Similarly to men, this also helps shift t:e ratios in the right direction for women.
Anecdotally, I always feel great after a yoga session. I’m actually heading to a yoga class right after I finish this article.
Before You Dismiss Yoga, Please Try It
If you think yoga is a bit of a joke, I’d encourage you to go to a class and to make sure that class is power yoga/vinyasa flow. Yoga is an intense full-body workout that challenges your pace of breathing, concentration, balance, and dynamic flexibility. I definitely activate my anaerobic system for a significant portion of each class.
How Often Should You Practice?
I practice power yoga/vinyasa flow 1-3 times per week, depending on how active I’ve been. I try not to do yoga more than twice a week if I’ve also run sprints.
Speaking of sprints, they’re extremely beneficial when executed correctly.
The Benefits Of Sprinting
Once every week or two, I’ll find a nice hill in the city to run sprint repeats. The previous article discussed how sprinting can negatively impact testosterone, cortisol, and hGH production. However, at a lower frequency, sprinting can actually help balance these same hormones.
Sprinting Helps Temporarily Increase Testosterone & hGH Levels
Studies suggest that sprinting, when performed regularly and with adequate rest periods, temporarily increases testosterone and hGH levels, with no measurable effect on baseline levels. Your body benefits from the temporary boost. Regular sprinters also experience upticks in fast-twitch muscle fiber development, as well as improvements in the capillary networks that support them.
How Often Should You Sprint?
They key is to not sprint more than once a week. You reap the biggest benefits with proper recovery and spacing in between workouts, and this is especially true with sprinting, unless you want to generate excessive cortisol production, systemic inflammation, and a plethora of other issues associated with chronic anaerobic activity and overtraining. The previous article covers this in detail.
Sprinting & Walking Combined Produce Greatest Result For Capillary Building
Walking and sprinting both utilize different energy systems, but also help develop different muscle fibers (slow-twitch versus fast-twitch). As a result, each of these exercises impacts the blood flow capacity of different types of capillary networks.
If you want to improve cardiovascular health, be sure to include both walking and sprinting into your regular exercise regimen.
As always, with any of these exercises (but especially walking and sprinting), it’s important to do them in the right setting: outside and in the sunlight.
The Benefits Of Exercising In The Sun
The importance of sun exposure is often downplayed, and without good reason. Sunlight exposure naturally increases the body’s vitamin D levels, which is vital to maintaining endocrine health, a functioning immune system, hormonal balance, and even hair health.
One of the easiest ways to raise vitamin D levels is to exercise outdoors as often as possible.
Because of the established connection between skin cancer and sunburns, people often stay out of the sun more than they actually should. While individual tolerance varies from person-to-person, sun exposure is central to your thyroid function, hair health, and longevity.
What Happens When You Are Vitamin D Deficient?
In premenopausal women, insufficient sun exposure (and thereby low vitamin D levels) is associated with an increased risk of autoimmune thyroid disorder.
Moreover, low levels of vitamin D have also been associated with decreased immunity, osteoporosis, heart disease, certain cancers, and even hair loss. The important takeaway is that vitamin D is central to hormone synthesis and immune functionality.
Being deficient in vitamin D, for lack of a better term, can be considered an endocrine disruptor – which means an imbalanced testosterone:estrogen ratio in both sexes, with can result in hair loss for both sexes.
How much Vitamin D Is Enough?
It’s hard to say. Considering most of us work indoors during daylight hours, and considering we evolved (more or less) in the sun and naked, it’s postulated that most of the population in today’s first world countries aren’t even close to optimal levels.
What does all this mean? Expose yourself to the sun as often as possible (without burning). Exercising outdoors is also an opportunity to achieving higher vitamin D levels.
Avoid Sunscreens When Possible
Lastly, I suggest you avoid using sunscreens. They’re full of the same ingredients we’re trying to avoid in shampoos, meaning they are endocrine-disrupting for both sexes, and therefore disastrous to your hair.
If you feel like you’re burning, cover up or sit in the shade for a while. Until then, enjoy the sun and its countless benefits to your body. You should obviously choose sunscreen over burning, but if you’re not expecting to be in the sun for too long, just enjoy the weather. Please be cognizant about your sun exposure. Know your limits.
Last but not least, when working exercise and sun exposure into your lifestyle, always be sure to get a good night’s sleep.
Sleep Is The Ultimate Hormone Regulator
Similar to sunlight exposure, sleep is often overlooked as less important than exercise, but it’s actually the most important. Sleeping is one of the biggest influencers of hormonal secretion, and just missing one night of sleep can wreak havoc on your endocrine system, immunity, and hormones. Conversely, consistent sleep aligned with your circadian rhythm can regulate endocrine functionality, hormone levels, and your immune system. Without sleep, nothing else matters.
The Longer You Stay Awake, The Lower Your Testosterone
Studies suggest that men’s testosterone levels increase throughout sleep duration and decrease during time awake. This relationship can have a compounded effect, especially during sleep deprivation.
Consider the impact of sleeping one hour fewer than normal each night. For a few days, you may not notice any effect on acuity, libido, or cognitive function. But over a series of weeks or months, these lost hours compound, and eventually lower baseline testosterone levels, simultaneously reducing your sex drive and ability to concentrate.
In The Long Run, Fewer Sleeping Hours Increases Your Risk Of Heart Disease
Studies have demonstrated that short-term sleep deprivation decreases glucose tolerance and increases blood pressure. But for women, a 2003 study suggests long-term sleep deprivation also increases the risk of coronary heart disease. Women sleeping 5, 6, or 7 hours a night were found to have a significantly higher risk of a coronary event than those who slept 8 hours consistently.
Surprisingly, that same study also showed an elevated risk for women who slept 9 or more hours a night. This suggests that under AND over-sleeping can yield the same detrimental consequences. Needless to say, it’s important to stay consistently within your circadian rhythm.
If your objectives are to reduce arterial calcification, reestablish hormonal balance, reduce systemic inflammation, and promote the conditions necessary for hair growth, then exercise by doing the following:
- Above all, get a good night’s sleep consistently (7-8 hours)
- Exercise outdoors and in the sunlight
- Build walking or hiking into your daily routine
- Practice activities like yoga to utilize your own body for strength-training
- Build sprints into your exercise regimen once a week
And that’s it. Move as often as possible, don’t overdo anaerobic exercise, enjoy the fresh air and sunlight outdoors, and sleep consistently. You don’t need to overcomplicate things; you just need to stay active. Your body will take care of the rest.
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.