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Exercise and Your Period

What You Need to Know to Go with the Flow
-- By Liza Barnes, Health Educator

For two years I was a sex-ed teacher. A common topic was puberty, which required me to ever-so-gingerly reveal the story of the birds and the bees. My teaching tools were simple: poster-sized drawings of the male and female reproductive organs, and a demo “puberty bag”, containing a variety of items that related to puberty, to help congeal the knowledge I’d (hopefully) transferred to them over the course of the session. Brave volunteers would blindly choose an item from the bag and explain to the class how it could come in handy during puberty.

Besides the obvious likes of sanitary pads and pimple cream, the kit contained a plastic ear, to represent the fact that it’s useful to have someone to talk to during the sometimes difficult years of adolescence, and a jump rope, to represent the importance of exercise. Those kids learned that exercise not only helps you to stay fit and healthy, but for the burgeoning women in the room, it could actually help ease unpleasant effects of the menstrual cycle, like cramps and bloating. If you’re reading this, you’re obviously not in the fourth grade, but that might have been the last time you reviewed the basics of your menstrual cycle. But if you're like most women, you might have never learned how to effectively mix that time of the month with a regular exercise routine. Read on for a period refresher, and information about how to work with your cycle when you’re trying to get and stay fit.

Cycle Basics
Your menstrual cycle begins on the first day of your period. It continues until your next period begins, usually about 28 days later. We break up the cycle into several phases, which occur as follows (keep in mind that every woman's cycle varies, so the numbers you see below are estimates):
  • Menstrual phase (days 1-4), when the uterine lining is shed.
  • Follicular phase (days 5-13), when menstruation eases, uterine lining thickens and ovarian follicles begin to ripen.
  • Ovulation (day 14), when the dominant follicle releases an egg.
  • Luteal phase (days 15-28), when the uterine lining continues to thicken and that dominant follicle becomes a corpus luteum. This corpus luteum will "live" for 2 weeks, but if implantation of a fertilized egg occurs, it will die.
All of these changes occur because of programmed fluctuations in hormone levels. Estrogen dominates during the follicular phase, and progesterone rules the luteal phase. Levels of both plummet sharply in the time preceding menstruation. But that's not all these hormones do. They can also cause changes in mood and other physical symptoms. Because of the sharp drop in hormone levels prior to menstruation, many women experience some of the following symptoms:
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Increased insulin responsiveness
  • Food cravings
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
Obviously, these symptoms can make exercising during your period unpleasant to say the least. But exercising can actually make your period more manageable, decreasing many of these symptoms. It is safe and beneficial to exercise during your period, unless your doctor advises against it. The only caution (for yoga practitioners) is to avoid certain yoga poses. (Some yoga experts recommend against inverted poses during a woman’s period, but other experts maintain that inverted poses are perfectly safe throughout a woman’s cycle.)

There are many benefits to exercising during your period. Working out can help:
  • Decrease the pain of cramps by releasing endorphins (the body's natural painkillers), increasing blood flow, and by loosening muscles in your lower abdomen, back, and thighs.
  • Rid your body of excess water so you aren’t bloated.
  • Improve and stabilize your mood, making you less anxious, angry, or depressed.
Of course, there are even more benefits to a regular exercise program. By exercising consistently, you may be able to achieve a lighter and shorter menstrual flow, a lower incidence of mood swings, and a stronger pelvic floor, which can better support your reproductive organs.

The following suggestions will help you develop a synergy between menstruation and exercise, so you can optimize your workouts, and your periods.
  • If you are just beginning an exercise program, and you suffer from cramps and other period-related issues, then start out slowly. Make sure you're listening to your body and not overdoing it.
  • Increase exercise around your period, which will improve oxygen circulation throughout the body.
  • Eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein.
  • Avoid lots of salt (but use spices, especially spicy ones, liberally).
  • Avoid refined sugars and fried foods.
  • Avoid caffeine—it can make cramps worse.
  • Get plenty of sleep.
  • Use heat to relieve cramps so you can get to the gym and stick to your workouts.
When to Talk to Your Health Care Provider
If you try all of the above suggestions and your periods are still painful, listen to your body. Take a few days off if you need to, or focus on non-pelvic body parts, like your biceps and triceps. If your period symptoms are so rough that they're hindering you from performing your daily activities, then you should see your women’s health care provider.

Some women are concerned that if they exercise too much, their periods will stop altogether. If your periods are not regular, or seem to be fading away, see your doctor. But keep in mind that if you're not a vigorously-training athlete, exercise is probably not the cause of your cycle irregularity. Exercise-induced amenorrhea usually occurs in athletes who train vigorously, like long-distance runners (more than 30 miles a week), but it's thought to be triggered by the loss of body fat (fat cells are essential for hormone production), rather than exercise itself. Assuming that your menstrual irregularities are due to exercise might mean that other treatable causes get ignored. Amenorrhea can be dangerous to your overall health and warrants a visit to your women’s health care provider, as it can cause premature osteoporosis, infertility, and a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.

What I hoped to convey to those fourth-grade kids is what I hope to convey to you: exercising during your period will not result in physical damage, and it is safe and beneficial (unless your physician advises against it). And more importantly, that your body is amazing! If you respect your body by understanding it, listening to it, and caring for it, it will serve you well for a lifetime.

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About The Author
Liza Barnes
Liza received her bachelor's degree in health promotion and education from the University of Cincinnati and is pursuing a master's degree in nurse midwifery. She is the proud mother of one daughter.
Liza Barnes Rothfuss


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