A diagnosis of polycystic ovarian syndrome (or PCOS) can feel scary and overwhelming, particularly if you’re concerned about how PCOS will affect your reproductive future. There’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding the diagnosis, as there are still a lot of unknowns when it comes to conditions like PCOS. While there’s a consensus that the condition can lead to infertility, there’s no singular course of treatment or plan of action for those affected by PCOS.
That’s because even though PCOS is very common — according to the Cleveland Clinic, it affects up to 15 percent of women — the exact cause of PCOS has yet to be defined. Expert understanding of the most effective treatments for PCOS is also undefined: While hormonal birth control, insulin-sensitizing drugs, and medications to block androgens may be prescribed to help manage the symptoms of PCOS, lifestyle factors may be effective as well. And for people who want to get pregnant, staying away from medications (especially birth control, for obvious reasons) may be a more attractive option.
But that raises the question: Which lifestyle changes can really alter the course of PCOS, especially as it relates to getting pregnant? There’s so much information — and, to be frank, misinformation out there when it comes to managing chronic conditions through lifestyle factors such as dietary changes. But recent research suggests one thing you can focus on if you’re looking to boost your fertility through lifestyle modifications.
Exercise and PCOS: What the research says
A systematic review published in BMC Public Health aimed to analyze the effect exercise could have on fertility in people with PCOS — and let’s just say that if these findings are any indication, a swift walk around the block could help improve your odds of conceiving.
The systemic review looked at previously conducted trials looking at the relationship between exercise and reproductive function in people with PCOS. Researchers combed through studies conducted between January 2010 and December 2022 for the purpose of this review, and what they found was that physical activity could potentially boost fertility in people with PCOS.
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On top of this, the researchers also suggest that regular exercise may reduce social and psychological stress in people with PCOS. This is meaningful, as the condition has been linked to psychological problems, low self-esteem, and social isolation, per the paper’s authors. And of course, we’ve all heard that reducing stress is a good way to increase your odds of conceiving.
You’ve also heard that being obese can affect your odds of conceiving — and while BMI is an incomplete measure of a person’s health, this is an evidence-backed link that’s worth considering, especially as the study’s authors point out that about 60 percent of people with PCOS are overweight or obese. Of course, exercise is beneficial for so much more than weight management, but this link is worth thinking about for people who are struggling to conceive.
Lifestyle interventions have been shown to help people manage PCOS, and diet and exercise are two of those expert-recommended interventions. Unlike fertility treatments and testing, these lifestyle changes are relatively accessible, and they may be a great first line of defense for people who are trying to conceive and are not ready to see a reproductive endocrinologist.
Can exercise improve fertility in women with PCOS?
With that being said, these findings don’t mean that exercise is a magic bullet solution for people trying to get pregnant.
“Despite the health benefits of physical activity/exercise in PCOS, a limited focus has been placed on analyzing [sic] the independent beneficial effects of exercise on women’s reproductive functions in a systematic way,” write the researchers. “This systematic review aims to synthesize the positive effects of various exercise regimes and types on reproductive functions among PCOS women of reproductive age.”
More research is needed to fully understand how exercise can affect reproductive function, but this research is interesting — and since exercise benefits the body and mind in so many ways, it’s probably worth implementing beyond these findings. With that being said, people with PCOS may experience menstrual irregularities and ovulatory dysfunction, which may need medical attention. And while exercise may be a beneficial lifestyle intervention, a chat with your OB/GYN or a consultation with a reproductive endocrinologist is the ideal first step if you have PCOS and are ready to try to conceive.
Not only can a medical expert answer any questions about how you can increase your odds of getting pregnant, but they can also direct you toward the appropriate care you need. People with PCOS certainly don’t always require fertility treatments to get pregnant, but it might be smart for them to preemptively check in with a fertility expert, especially if they experience menstrual irregularities or are not getting their periods at all.
All of the exercises in the world won’t get each and every person pregnant. Some people need medical intervention, and it’s important that we acknowledge that findings like this don’t change that.
Zara Hanawalt is a freelance journalist and mom of twins. She's written for outlets like Parents, Marie Claire, Elle, Cosmopolitan, and Motherly. In her (admittedly limited!) free time, she enjoys cooking, reading, trying new restaurants, and traveling with her family.