Women’s Health Series - Part 2: Exercise and Female Cycles

Should hitting the gym depend on the stage of your menstrual cycle?

For instance, almost 42% of women believe that menstruation has negative effects on their exercise performance, so is there even a point? Besides, between cramps, bloating, mood swings, juggling female hygiene products and managing bathroom urges, it can be understandably difficult to find motivation to slide into your gear and complete that workout. And about that – there is so much information around about supposedly ‘unsafe’ or ‘undesirable’ exercises to avoid during the menstruation, and your workout plan just so happens to be 99% those…oh, the struggle.

So, should you simply postpone your sweat session and succumb to sofa and chocolate? Are you better off only working out during other stages of your cycle?

Not so fast, girl – let’s look at some evidence first!

Where is the science at?

Unfortunately, the relationship between periods and exercise remains a bit of a mystery – in fact, women are majorly underrepresented in this research space. Ironically, one of the leading reasons for this are periods themselves! The complexities of female cycles pose both ethical (e.g. potential damage to unborn foetuses, especially in trials when drugs or stimulants are involved) and methodological differences (e.g. making sure all participants are going through the same cycle stage at points of testing) when it comes to conducting research.

Furthermore, even when women are included, usually only the early follicular phase is considered, meaning the hormone levels are at the lowest (need a brush up on cycle phases? Check out Part 1 of the series!). This means that much less is known about other stages, as well as the effects of complex interactions of hormones.

In saying that, although there are many limiting factors to obtaining reliable information, there are some solid theories about the effects of the menstrual cycle on athletic performance and vice versa!

Effects of the menstrual cycle on exercise performance

The continually changing hormonal profiles throughout the cycle have a variety of effects on athletic performance, including but not limited to:

    • Changes in muscle contractile capacity. Although there is much debate on how exactly cycles affect muscle contraction potential (basically, how much you can utilise your muscles to perform lifts and other strength-based exercises), there is almost definitely some kind of a link there. Better quality research appears to suggest that mid-cycle is where many women are strongest, suggesting that estrogen may have a strengthening effect. It’s worth noting though that the exact ‘peak strength’ point of the cycle is likely to be individual-specific, meaning you have some self-experimenting to do. Girl power!
  • Changes in inflammatory response. If you are fairly new to exercise, research shows that during menstruation high-intensity exercise may provoke more pronounced inflammatory response compared to other cycle phases. In other words, you may feel sorer and more defeated following the same workout when you’re on your period compared to other times, which is something to be aware of. Drop the intensity a bit if this sounds like you. Good news, however: these effects are not nearly as pronounced for those with higher levels of fitness, so it’s almost certainly going to get better with time!
    • Aerobic performance. If you’re looking for a sign to try out a new HIIT session, the luteal phase of your cycle may be the best time to give it a go! See, during this cycle phase, performance in high-intensity exercise is likely to skyrocket, and you’ll get through your circuits like a boss.

    Best of all – some things may be more difficult than others, due to discomfort and hormonal fluctuations, however overall your performance during your period is unlikely to suffer much, if at all!

    And if you’re looking for reasons to stay active throughout your entire cycle, check out the…

    Effects of exercise on the menstrual cycle

    Whether you’re feeling relieved and energised right after your period, or are experiencing menstrual cramps, bloating and mood swings, there is no reason to avoid exercise altogether!

    In fact, beyond discomfort, there is no evidence to suggest that any particular exercise pattern is outright dangerous for healthy women on their period (despite myths such as ‘no lifting’ or ‘no crunches’). Exercising will not prolong your period or make you feel worse, provided you are adequately fuelled, hydrated, and your health isn’t compromised.

    Of course, discomfort is not to be ignored – and if you’re not feeling up to your originally scheduled session, there is nothing wrong with going for a light walk or performing some gentle stretches instead. This is especially true if you’re new to fitness, and more intense exercise feels like a stressor for your body on its own, period or not. Furthermore, if you have any female health concerns, always follow your doctor’s advice, as appropriate guidelines may vary.

    However, there is almost never a reason to avoid exercise entirely, as it can:

    • Improve mood – this includes the dreaded PMS mood swings! As exercise triggers the release of ‘feel good’ hormones (e.g. endorphins and serotonin), it helps balance out the chaos of hormonal swings.
    • Boost sleep quality. Changes between cycle phases can trigger sleep problems – not to mention the actual menstruation that is often accompanied by night time cramps, pain and discomfort. By staying active, you can help your body get rid of unnecessary muscle tension, as well as improve temperature control, promoting peaceful, restful sleep.
    • Reduce period symptoms over time. From fatigue to menstrual headaches, sticking to your exercise routine (or a slightly modified version it) throughout the entire cycle helps battle those symptoms and reduce or even eliminate them over time.

    So, unless you’re experiencing unbearable symptoms, it’s always a good idea to exercise at any stage of your cycle!

    Take home message

    Female cycles and exercise influence each other in a variety of ways, many of which are sadly under-investigated. However, one thing is certain: exercise has many benefits regardless of the cycle stage, and even if you have to make modifications due to individual physiology, staying active throughout the entire cycle (including periods!) can be confidently recommended to most. So, put those leggings on and get it, girl!