Back pain, nausea, and cramping are just a few of the well-known symptoms associated with a woman’s menstrual cycle. Finding healthy ways to alleviate the frustrating symptoms can be a challenge, especially when aspirin and comfort food are calling. And, while it may be the last thing you want to do when you have your period, exercise is one of the best things you can do while on your period. “Working out can actually help relieve some period symptoms,” says Lori Shemek, Ph.D., author of How to Fight FATflammation. “Exercise can help reduce cramps and boost your mood.”
That said, your period brings more than cramps and cravings. The hormonal changes that women go through during their menstrual cycle can impact the body in various ways. For example, you may experience headaches, diarrhea, cramping, vomiting, backaches, and nausea. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends at least 30 minutes of regular aerobic exercise most days of the week to combat these symptoms. It’s important, though, to know exactly how your period and the hormonal changes that come with it might impact your workouts. Here, we break down how to adjust exercise to suit your period and how that exercise can help alleviate symptoms.
Four Phases of the Female Menstrual Cycle
First, it’s important to understand how your period comes and goes. Each phase of your menstrual cycle brings various physical and hormonal changes.
Phase 1: This is the start of your period when the uterine lining breaks down and sheds. This may cause cramping, along with depletion of energy, aches, and pains.
Phase 2: After the last day of your period, the body prepares for ovulation and a mature egg. This process produces estrogen, which may cause you to have a better mood and more energy.
Phase 3: Ovulation takes place. The mature egg is released and travels to the uterus to be fertilized by the sperm if contact is made. Potential pregnancy occurs.
Phase 4: This last stage is known as the luteal phase. If the egg is not fertilized, estrogen and progesterone levels drop. The breakdown of uterine tissue and your period begin. In the second half of this phase, you may experience moods ranging from anxiety to depression. Possible cramping and breast tenderness can occur.
Exercise can help beat fatigue and improve mood.
Exercise affects periods by helping boost your mood and giving you a jolt of energy to beat fatigue. The body goes through a number of hormonal highs and lows during your cycle. About ten days before your period, your body is preparing for fertilization. When that doesn’t occur, all the hormones that were helping to sustain the environment for fertilization are no longer needed, causing hormone levels to drop (phase four). These shifts cause exhaustion, but they’re part of the body’s natural cycle.
You may also feel irritable or depressed due to the imbalance of estrogen and progesterone, which can affect your serotonin level. This creation of emotions is a part of premenstrual syndrome, also known as PMS. “Physical exercise can beat fatigue and headaches associated with premenstrual syndrome through releasing endorphins,” says Sarah G. Jamison, M.D., a board-certified emergency medicine physician. “Endorphins are chemicals that provide the body with a feeling of euphoria and energy, as well as decrease the amount of pain perceived by the brain.”
Your workout performance may vary during this time.
Even with all the cramping and bloating, the effectiveness of your workouts on your period remains the same, according to research on female athletes. Nonetheless, it can be hard to feel productive. “Many women feel that even if they do work out, the workout will not be as quality as when they are not on their periods,” Shemek says.
This concern is completely understandable. In some cases, you may not achieve the same type of workout you would days after your menstrual cycle has ended. Aaptiv Trainer Jaime McFaden says, “You may feel more fatigued than normal, and you can feel less motivated, but overall you’re still capable of what you would normally do.” You might not feel up to working out at your usual intensity, but your body is still equipped for whatever type of exercise you can handle.
It’s also important to bear in mind that the body’s relaxin hormone will increase, which softens the cervix to allow menstruation to occur. Relaxin also increases the flexibility of ligaments and tendons, making you more vulnerable to joint injury. So, opting for workouts you’re most comfortable with is a good idea.
Overall, you shouldn’t see too much change in your workout performance. “Even though you may feel ‘blah,’ it was found that a trained individual has no change in aerobic performance or cardiovascular output throughout their monthly cycle,” says Dr. Jennifer Dour of Garden State Spinal Care. “They did find that lactate production decreases during luteal phase (after ovulation when you’re not menstruating). [This] may correlate to quicker recovery at times without menstruation.” So, you actually may have better workouts directly after your period ends even if you’re still feeling a bit out of it.
Which workouts are best?
Sometimes all you need is a quick workout to alleviate cramps. Even if you can’t exercise at your highest intensity, the goal is to get moving. Once you start, you may feel fewer aches and cramps. McFaden recommends “HIIT, strength training, and stretching to help your body and mind to feel better during that time of the month.” She goes on to suggest avoiding poses that may engorge the blood vessels in the uterus, such as handstands, which may lead to more cramping and even more bleeding. Calming workouts such as yoga and meditation can help with stress and even provide pain relief. High-energy workouts such as dance and cardio can encourage endorphin production to support a good mood.
Overall, listen to your body. It’s totally fine to sit out a day or two of exercise when your PMS or cramps feel out of control. But don’t put off exercise too long. It can make all the difference in alleviating your symptoms and helping your mood.