Does the thought of working out during your period make you want to cancel your gym membership? Or did a coach in school once say, “Movement helps period cramps, no excuses!”, so you power through? No matter how (and whether) you choose to exercise on your period, up-to-date science makes for fascinating reading.
Can your exercise and menstrual cycle go hand-in-hand?
Until the early 90s, the majority of meaningful health research still focused solely on men. Meanwhile, women were caught in an exhausting cycle of hitting a health problem (usually connected to weight, and weight management), trying various restrictive diets and punishing workout routines, and getting deeper into sub-optimal health.
Lack of willpower wasn’t the problem. Most exercise routines and fitness crazes weren’t designed with cyclical bodies in mind.
Some exercise is helpful, some creates stress
Fast-forward to 2022, and exercise science is beginning to clarify how exercise and the menstrual cycle – and approaches to training – can impact each other. Studies reveal certain forms of movement can be really beneficial when you’re on your period, and some can increase stress and should be avoided.
Even more fascinating, there are ideal workouts to incorporate during each and every phase of your monthly cycle, not just the menstrual phase. Movement that’s in sync with your cycle can yield incredible results, including better hormone balance, reduced stress, faster recovery and improved performance.
Here’s how to get the most out of your workouts, by syncing your exercise and menstrual cycle:
Day 1 – 6 (your period, until bleeding stops)
During the menstrual phase, your feel-good hormones will fall to their lowest level. Many women find their energy levels also drop to their lowest point for the month. Keep in mind that during your bleed, you lose vital nutrients. So excessive exercise which causes unnecessary stress on the body can be unhelpful in this phase.
Stress is linked to hormonal imbalance, period pain and increased PMS symptoms. The key here is to listen to your body. If you have period pain, or are experiencing heavy bleeding, take some time off from your workouts until you notice your energy ramps back up (usually around day 3 to 5).
If you feel like moving your body at that time, go for it, as the endorphins will likely feel good. Just be conscious to notch things up slowly, going at your body’s pace.
The menstrual phase is a great time to: rest like you mean it, go slow, walk the dog, practice yin yoga, and spend time in nature.
Try to avoid: yoga postures with inversions, intense cardio, heavy lifting.
Day 7-12 (roughly speaking, your follicular phase)
After your bleed is completely over, you’re officially in the follicular phase. Your feel-good hormones are rising each day during this time, signalling to your brain that it’s time to get moving and be creative. Many women notice they’re more likely to take risks and try something new during the follicular phase, so this is the ideal time to take that class you’ve been curious about, to mix up your fitness routine.
Plus, the latest research shows that anaerobic capacity and muscle strength are likely to peak during this phase. Which means that lifting weights (at the right level) now could come with improved overall performance. Whether you’re resistance training or trying something new, have the confidence to raise the intensity here, in your workouts. Go for it!
The follicular phase is a great time to: weight train, try something new or join a group fitness class.
Day 13-17 (around ovulation)
The ovulatory phase is the time when you’re most fertile, and for many women it’s also the phase where they tend to feel the most active and energetic. Estrogen, follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH) are all at their peak, which can add to feelings of vibrancy and increased stamina.
High estrogen can enhance muscle strength and mass, so it’s a good time to continue with weights. The surging feel-good hormones in this phase also support the verbal and social centers of the brain, making you more communicative, and keen to engage. You’re primed for all-out intensity and socialising now, so call a friend and hit the gym!
The ovulatory phase is a great time to: take a HIIT class, try spinning, keep weight training, run intervals, or practice power yoga with a friend
Day 18 – 28 (or until you start bleeding)
The luteal phase is the longest part of your cycle, so you may still feel like high intensity works for you in the first half of this period. New research suggests that women often fatigue faster during this part of their cycle, and need longer to recover. So, if you notice your energy wane towards the end of your luteal phase, decrease the intensity.
A woman’s metabolism naturally increases now too, so you don’t need high intensity to speed things up, as your body is doing that naturally. Note too, that it’s normal to eat a bit more than usual here. Complex carbohydrates, like sweet potato and brown rice, will keep you fuller for longer, and help you stave off any sugar cravings.
The luteal phase is a great time to: maintain high-intensity exercise (towards the beginning), gradually shifting to restorative yoga, qoya, and walking.
As the link between exercise and menstrual cycle comes into focus, there’s never been a better time to assess your fitness routine. Traditional workout science – so focused on the male form – which has been deemed applicable for your cyclical body, just doesn’t cut it!
Working with your body, instead of against it, by syncing your exercise and menstrual cycle can set you on a trajectory to reach your health goals more easily and sustainably than ever before.
This is just the beginning. Interested in learning more about your cycle and how to work with it to enhance other areas of your life? Check out Period Love and Jamie’s free guide.