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Why does exercise improve fertility?

Why does exercise improve fertility?

Kindara | March 24, 2021 | trying to conceive
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When you’re trying to conceive (TTC), it can definitely feel like there are rules about everything, from what you can eat to when (and how often) you should have sex. More research is needed before doctors can give a definitive answer for how much you should exercise each week or whether specific exercises may improve fertility. However, existing research has taught us a few things about what works best when it comes to exercising while TTC. Let’s take a look.  

Can weight affect fertility?

First, we should touch quickly on the relationship between weight and fertility. There’s been more research on this than on how exercise affects fertility, so we have more information. In a nutshell, being underweight, overweight, or obese may make it harder to conceive and sustain a pregnancy. Typically, this is due to problems with ovulation, meaning that something’s keeping the ovaries from releasing a mature egg each cycle (1). If you’re not ovulating, you can’t get pregnant (2). 

You may already know that your ovaries make estrogen, but did you know that fat cells produce it too (2)? So, as you gain weight, the level of estrogen produced by fat cells rises. Too much estrogen can cause your body to stop ovulating and having a period (2). This is actually the idea behind many hormonal birth controls, which work by adding estrogen to your body and triggering this effect on purpose (2).

On the flip side, being underweight can cause your body to stop producing estrogen. Underproducing estrogen, just like overproducing it, can cause irregular cycles and ceased ovulation. This is especially true for women who are underweight because they’re not eating enough or are exercising too much (2).

A note on BMI

When we say “underweight,” we’re referring to a body mass index (BMI) of 18.5 or less, and a BMI in the obese range is anything above 30. Being on either end of the spectrum may lead to irregular or ceased ovulation (1, 3). However, even obese women who ovulate regularly have lower pregnancy rates than women whose BMI falls into the “normal” range of 18.5 to 20 (1, 3). This is probably due to other health issues associated with being overweight or obese, such as thyroid disease, insulin resistance, and diabetes (1).

Not sure what your BMI is? The CDC hosts an online BMI calculator that you can use to get an idea of where you stand. Keep in mind, however, that you shouldn’t use your BMI as a perfect indicator of your body fat or overall health. Talking with your doctor is the best way to get information and advice for your specific situation (3).

How is exercise related to fertility and overall health?

Exercise truly is the gift that keeps on giving. Researchers are still working to understand the many ways that physical activity works to improve overall health, but there’s still more than enough data to recommend it wholeheartedly. The subtle changes that happen to your body when you start exercising can help prevent and improve a wide range of health problems, including high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis, and heart disease (4, 5).

Physical activity is also an important part of managing your weight, as well as controlling your blood sugar and insulin levels (5). It may also help strengthen your bones and muscles, reduce the risk of some cancers, improve your sleep quality and increase your chances of living longer (5). See? Exercise really does keep on giving...

But there’s still more. The benefits of physical activity aren’t only, well, physical. Regular exercise has also been found to help with depression, anxiety, and overall mood. Plus, it’s pretty great at reducing stress, and lowering stress levels may actually make it easier to get pregnant (4, 6). 

Let’s get specific about exercise and fertility

Any and all of the above benefits can work together to get your body stronger, healthier, and more ready to take on the physical demands of getting pregnant and having a baby. But exercise may affect your reproductive health more directly too. Studies have found that moderate exercise may improve fertility in all women, even those in the normal weight range. On the other hand, vigorous exercise has only been shown to improve fertility in overweight and obese women (7). For non-overweight women, too much vigorous exercise may affect ovulation and make it harder to conceive (8).

One of the most common causes of female infertility is polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which affects around 1 in 10 women of childbearing age (1). PCOS is often linked with being overweight or obese, insulin sensitivity, and elevated levels of androgens (male sex hormones, such as testosterone), all of which may interfere with ovulation (1). Fortunately, many ovulation problems, including those that stem from PCOS, can be improved by making lifestyle changes — mainly, eating a healthy fertility diet and exercising regularly (9). (Check out this blog post to read more about what we mean by eating a “fertility diet.”)

Male fertility, weight, and exercise

Females aren’t the only ones that need to consider their weight and activity level while TTC. One 2012 study found that, compared to “normal-weight” men, overweight men were 11% more likely to have a low sperm count and 39% more likely to have no sperm in their ejaculate at all. For obese men, those numbers rose to 42% and 81%, respectively (10). Being underweight has also been found to negatively affect sperm health and production (11).

Exercise and a nutritional diet are great tools to help overweight or obese men reach a healthy weight. As an added plus, men who exercise regularly may have a lower risk of erectile dysfunction, which can definitely help out when trying to conceive (5). 

There is, however, one caveat: while trying to conceive, men should consider putting long bike rides on hold until after conception. A 2011 study found that men who bicycled for 5 or more hours a week tended to have lower sperm concentrations and total motile sperm (sperm that are good at swimming forward in a straight line) (12).

How (and how much) should you exercise while TTC?

Before we get too deep into exercise talk, we should first point out that it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor before starting any new exercise routine — especially if you’re currently going through fertility treatments or think you might be pregnant. 

While we know there’s a relationship between exercise and ovulation, there haven’t been enough robust studies to determine the ideal length or type of physical activity that will do the most to improve fertility (13). General guidelines from the American Heart Association suggest getting at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise to maintain and improve health, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise, each week, along with 2 days of added muscle-strengthening activity (14).

3cc exercise recommendations

Moderate activity is any exercise that increases your breathing rate and gets your heart beating faster. At this level of activity, you should still be able to talk without having to pause for breath (14). Vigorous activity, which many women may choose to eliminate or reduce while trying to conceive, requires more effort. During vigorous exercise, you won’t really be able to talk without getting out of breath, and you’ll notice your body start sweating and getting warmer (7, 14). 

Examples of moderate exercise

Whether an exercise is considered “moderate” or “vigorous” depends on your individual fitness level. What qualifies as a moderate activity for you might be a vigorous activity for someone else, and vice versa. 

Power walking, dancing, cycling, yoga, Pilates, and swimming are all exercises that can be in the moderate range for many people. Plus, you can easily adjust their intensity as you get more in shape.

Physical activity is great for your overall health and fertility, especially when you combine it with a healthy diet and cycle tracking. Over time, you’ll see your body getting stronger and more fit, and you’ll realize you’re capable of so much more than you think. Just don’t forget to listen to your body and stay hydrated!

Tired of another month gone by without a positive pregnancy test? Priya Fertility Monitor Now Available

References +
How Not to Waste Another Month When Trying to Conceive
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