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Exercise to do and to avoid during your period

Exercise to do and to avoid during your period

Kindara | May 21, 2021 | Women's Health

Should I exercise differently when I’m on my period?

If you find it hard to motivate yourself to exercise while you’re on your period, you’re not alone. As your hormone levels fluctuate throughout your menstrual cycle, it’s perfectly normal to notice changes in your mood and energy levels. Fortunately, you don’t have to let those feelings keep you from getting in a good workout. 

Learning exactly what’s going on with your hormones during the different phases of your cycle can help you understand why you may not feel as upbeat or capable in the days before and during your period. Read on to dig deeper into what each phase of the menstrual cycle could mean for your exercise routine.

How can your menstrual cycle affect your energy?

Your menstrual cycle is powered by the ebb and flow of different hormones in your body. In addition to causing ovulation and menstrual bleeding, this hormonal fluctuation can also lead to changes in your energy level and mood. Everyone experiences these changes differently. If the guide below doesn’t match up to how you feel during the different phases of your cycle (or even if it does), try keeping a fitness journal to keep up with your energy levels during your workouts. After a few months of tracking, you may start to see a pattern in when your energy peaks and dips (1).

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Follicular phase

Your menstrual cycle starts on the first day of your period. At this point, estrogen and progesterone levels in your body are at their lowest. This causes the top layers of the blood and tissue lining your uterus (called the endometrium) to start breaking down and leaving the body, resulting in period bleeding (1, 2). 

Your cycle’s follicular phase encompasses your period and the days leading up to ovulation. During this phase, estrogen levels start rising slowly as your body prepares for ovulation (2, 3).

While estrogen levels are still low, especially during the first days of your period, you may notice yourself feeling more depressed or irritable than normal. It may also be harder to find the energy to work out around this time. However, as your estrogen levels rise throughout this phase, you may start to find it easier to be active (1, 3).

Estrogen helps boost endorphins, sometimes called “feel good” brain chemicals, which are also released during exercise. This may lead to increased feelings of relaxation and calm as you get closer to ovulation (1, 3). 

Ovulatory phase

The ovulatory phase of your cycle starts with a surge of luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) that triggers the release of a mature egg from one of your ovaries. This surge also signals your body to start making less estrogen and more progesterone. Ovulation typically happens between 16 and 32 hours after this surge (2).

Your estrogen levels are highest in the few days right before ovulation, meaning that you may feel at your best, both emotionally and physically, around this time. This can be a great time to try to push yourself in your exercise routine (3). 

After ovulation, however, estrogen levels begin to fall quickly as progesterone levels begin to rise. This might lead some women to feel more tired or sluggish than usual. During this time, your energy levels will probably peak in the mornings and decrease as the day goes on, so you may find it easier to get your workout in soon after you wake up (1).

Luteal phase 

The days between ovulation and your next period are known as the luteal phase of your cycle. After a brief dip following ovulation, estrogen levels stay steady. LH and FSH start decreasing and progesterone starts increasing. During this time, estrogen and progesterone in your body cause the uterine lining to thicken in preparation for a possible pregnancy (2).

Towards the end of this phase, if the egg isn’t fertilized, progesterone production will level off and start falling. Estrogen levels also start decreasing again around this time, which is why they’re at their lowest point on the first day of your period. This is when the uterine lining starts breaking down (1, 2). If the egg is fertilized, your body keeps producing progesterone, which helps support the pregnancy (2). (Read more about progesterone, your menstrual cycle, and your fertility here.)

As the estrogen in your body decreases, you may notice your energy levels getting lower as you approach the start of your period (1). The rapid change in hormones towards the end of the luteal phase may also cause changes in your mood, such as increased irritability, anxiety, and feelings of depression (3).

Note: Everyone’s cycles are unique, and you may not experience the energy changes that we talked about above, especially if you have irregular cycles. That’s okay! It’s still good to know what’s going on in your body during the different stages of your cycle. If you want even more details, read about the Phases of the Menstrual cycle here.

What types of exercise are best while I’m on my period?

For the most part, you shouldn’t have to change your exercise’s type, duration, or intensity while on your period (1). However, because of fluctuating energy levels, some may find it beneficial to switch up their exercise routines to match how they’re feeling throughout the different phases of their cycles.

If you’re having trouble getting motivated on days when your energy levels are lowest (probably the days leading up to your period), (1), a good solution is to look for a more gentle form of physical activity, such as walking or cycling, light strength training, or yoga. Gentle, low-impact activities are also great for when you’re on your period and you’re worried about bleeding through.

Another solution to breaking through hormone-induced energy dips is to switch to a physical activity that you find more enjoyment in, such as dancing, yard work, or playing outside with your kids or pets.

The important thing is that you listen to your body and be mindful of your energy level each day.  If you find yourself getting winded or fatigued doing your normal workout routine, don’t be afraid to lighten things up a little bit. Either way, you’re still getting exercise that’s important to your health!

A note for athletes on exercise and your period

If you’re used to high-intensity workouts, you may notice more fluctuation in your physical ability throughout the different stages of your menstrual cycle. A recent study noted that many female athletes feel like their athletic performance changes throughout their menstrual cycle (4). One 2017 study found that endurance performance (but not jumping or sprinting performance) was reduced during the mid-luteal phase of a woman’s cycle. However, that study only looked at 9 women (5). More robust research is needed to fully understand how hormone fluctuations affect athletic performance.

Additionally, too much exercise, especially when combined with a restrictive diet, may cause periods to become irregular or stop altogether. Regular periods are a sign of good health, so if you notice your periods become irregular or stop, you should talk to your doctor. They can help eliminate any underlying problems and help you figure out a plan of action to get your cycles back on track (1, 6).

Can exercise help with menstrual cramps or PMS?

Now that you know that there isn't really any biological reason to stop exercising while you're on your period, let's talk about some potential benefits of doing so. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), some women may find that regular exercise helps relieve PMS symptoms, such as depression and fatigue. They recommend getting at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise (think: brisk walking, running, cycling, or swimming) most days (7). 

A 2020 review of scientific research supports the idea that regular exercise may help with PMS symptoms. However, the authors note that additional research is needed to determine which types of exercise may provide the greatest benefit (8).

Researchers have also found that exercise may be able to help reduce period cramps. In a 2019 review of scientific research, study authors found that getting 30 to 45 minutes of exercise — no matter the intensity — at least 3 days a week may provide a clinically significant reduction in pain from menstrual cramps (9). Also, according to a 2018 study, aerobic exercise was found to decrease cramps just as much as stretching exercises (10).

While there’s still plenty of room to look deeper into the effects of exercise on PMS and menstrual cramps, there’s still good reason to recommend it. Regular exercise has many proven benefits to overall health and comes with relatively low risk of side effects (9). However, you shouldn’t force yourself to push through a tough workout if you feel like exercise is making your cramps worse or you feel especially fatigued. When that happens, you can either switch to a lighter workout, such as walking or stretching, or take the day off. 

Your hormones naturally fluctuate throughout your menstrual cycle, and there’s no getting around the fact that you may sometimes feel a lack of energy or motivation when it comes to working out. Some women may find that syncing their workout routine to their period may make it easier to exercise consistently. Other women may not. The most important thing is that you listen to your body, allow yourself time off when you need it, and find a workout routine that you can stick to.

Catherine Poslusny is a writer and content marketing strategist based out of Norman, Oklahoma. She's written for healthcare companies since 2016, and she's most passionate about her work in women’s health, fertility, and reproductive rights. You can find her at catherinerosewrites.com.  

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