How to use exercise science to stay fit and reduce period-related discomfort
Periods can put a cramp in our workout routines. This is the time of the month when our progesterone and estrogen levels are at their lowest, which can make us feel tired and less energetic. Some women also experience an increase in prostaglandins that cause inflammation and painful period-related symptoms, known as Dysmenorrhea, which isn’t exactly the greatest motivator for working out.
But what if I told you that exercise can actually help to alleviate these symptoms? It sounds counterintuitive but by going with the flow (of your menstrual cycle) we can both reduce discomfort and optimize our workouts. Before I go any further, it’s important to acknowledge that some women struggle with underlying medical issues like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and endometriosis. These tips may not apply to your situation if you experience heavy bleeding and debilitating pain. If you experience symptoms like these, contact a medical professional who can provide more specific guidance and care for your needs
To minimize discomfort and optimize wellness, we need to have a basic understanding of our menstruation cycle.
Most women’s cycles are about 28 days long, but some cycles are as short as 21 days and as long as 35. Our cycles also tend to change with age. You can track your cycle with free apps like FitrWoman or Flo or by marking days on your calendar.
Menstruation: Days 1 to 5
The start of our period marks day 1 of our cycle and typically lasts for 5 days. As I mentioned previously, this is when our estrogen and progesterone levels are at their lowest, which can make us feel a little less motivated to workout but it’s also when other hormones that are great for building strength, like testosterone, are at their peak. That means that our periods are a good time to focus on building muscle through resistance training exercises. This part of our cycle is also a good time for High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) since this is also when our bodies are better able to use stored energy from fat and carbohydrates.
For some women, however, these types of exercises can sometimes feel uncomfortable, especially during the first and second day the cycle when our flow tends to be the heaviest. If that’s the case for you, try a mix of light exercises like walking or swimming for 10–20 minutes, yoga, and Pilates to help with soreness and cramping.
Pre-ovulation: Days 6 to 14
During the week that immediately follows our period, our estrogen levels spike and we regain our energy so it’s a great time to resume your usual exercise intensity and even kick it up a notch. As our estrogen levels increase, our bodies tend to recover from our workouts faster, so take advantage of your body’s natural recovery system.
Another thing to note is that while you should always pay attention to your form when you’re working out to reduce the risk of injury, take extra special care when you exercise during this part of the cycle. Research has shown an increased risk of leg muscle and joint injury around days 9 through 14. You can reduce the risk of injury by making sure that you are properly allocating your weight when you’re squatting and lunging to protect those knees and ankles.
Ovulation: Days 15 to 23
During our ovulation phase, estrogen levels start to drop again while progesterone levels increase. Higher levels of progesterone make it more difficult to build and maintain muscle, which can also slow down our recovery time. This is a good time to focus on moderate exercises such as switching back and forth between weights and cardio or simply sticking with steady state cardio workouts like cycling, jogging, or speed-walking for 30 minutes to 1 hour.
Post Ovulation: Days 24 to 28
This is when both estrogen and progesterone levels fall because our bodies are preparing to shed the lining of our uterus. We may start to feel our energy levels drop during this phase but it’s important to try and incorporate movement and aerobic exercises to help alleviate common premenstrual symptoms like soreness and headaches. Cardio workouts have the added benefit of helping our bodies sweat out the extra water that we tend to store during this phase, which will relieve symptoms related to bloating.
My final tip is to trust your body and show yourself compassion. Go with the flow and take a break if you need one. Just know that while you may feel a little less motivated during some parts of the month more than others, exercise might actually be the best remedy for discomfort.