Most women would rather curl up in a ball with a pint of ice cream than break a sweat when their period arrives. But working out can actually help alleviate menstrual pain. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, regular exercise can help alleviate PMS symptoms—including those terrible cramps—and reduce the severity of your monthly visitor. We asked fitness experts what the best workouts for period pain are for those days you just don’t want to move.
We know that exercise produces endorphins, which make you feel good. But these natural mood lifters can help with cramps, too. Aerobic workouts like running, spinning, and dancing get the blood circulating throughout your body, reducing menstrual pain. “If your cramps aren’t too bad, I would recommend a steady pace workout. [This will] also help alleviate some of the moodiness associated with your period,” says running instructor and Aaptiv Trainer Meghan Takacs.
If running is your aerobic exercise of choice, Takacs points out that the first couple days of your period are actually the best time to hit the track. This is when your period is in its follicular phase. “Glycogen is broken down quickly in this part of your cycle. This can enhance your overall athletic performance,” she explains. Plus, the feel-good buzz you get after a cardio session will help with other PMS symptoms, like low-energy and cravings.
The benefits of yoga practice are widely known. The exercise is praised for improving balance and strength, as well as helping to reduce anxiety and depression. But, a Taiwanese study also found that yoga can reduce menstrual cramps and other period-related symptoms, like breast tenderness and cold sweats. “Yoga is an amazing alleviator of menstrual cramps because of the focus on breath work, relaxation, and meditation,” explains Rochelle Marasa, founder of personal training company Little Rock Fitness. “Breathing brings oxygen-rich blood back to the muscles [and] helps reduce cramping. The strength and stretching components of certain poses can open tight areas of the body.” What poses does Marasa recommend? “My top poses for cramps are child’s pose, bridge, and cat-cows,” she says. “Cat-cows are my favorite. They take pressure off the lower back by elongating the spine, while stretching and toning the abdominal muscles.”
When your cramps are so bad that the thought of hitting the gym makes you feel ill, even a low-impact cardio routine will help. Walk your dog around the block or get 15 minutes on the elliptical machine. It will be enough to get your blood flowing and make the pain go down. “Brisk walking with arms pumping helps get that heart rate up,” says Marasa. “Swimming is also a great option. It’s a full-body activity that helps soothe muscles while being low impact.” Bonus: Getting out of your house will help bust those period blues, too.
OK, so stretching isn’t a sweat-inducing workout, but it is great for unyielding pain. When you stretch, you help lengthen your muscles, which reduces nasty cramps. Stretching is also known to alleviate stress—something that makes menstrual pain worse. “For menstrual cramps and lower back pain, I recommend the standing forward bend,” says Marasa. For loosening up hips, try a pigeon pose or figure four stretch. “Other good options are lower trunk rotations, the cobra stretch, and the knee-to-chest stretch,” she says. But Marasa cautions not to rush, “Make sure to hold each stretch for 30 seconds.”
Whatever exercise you choose to do on your period, Takacs encourages you to track how your body is feeling and listen to it. “I think it’s important for us women to keep a log of how we feel on the days leading up to a cycle, during our cycle, and after,” she says. “This way, we don’t take poor performance too much to heart. We can schedule workouts on how we think we will perform.”