Working out on your period can be a bit… complicated. You may not feel your best and you worry about leakage. You might wonder if the effort is worth it.
Despite the fact that women have been menstruating for all of human history, there’s been little research regarding how exercise can affect your period and vice versa. As a result, a lot of myth, mystery, and misunderstanding persist regarding exercise and the menstrual cycle.
Here are the facts about period exercise.
Fluctuating hormone levels can affect your energy (and mood). According to the U.S. Office on Women’s Health, estrogen levels fall quickly after ovulation, which typically occurs about two weeks before the start of your period. Progesterone levels then rise, and many women report feeling more sluggish and tired than usual. Lower-than-normal energy levels can persist through the start of your period, and typically increase as you progress through your cycle.
Some women report low energy during their periods; others feel more energetic than usual. Every woman is unique.
If you feel less energetic during your period, you don’t have to push yourself. It’s okay to scale back your workouts for a bit. Instead of running, try yoga or swimming. Or simply run fewer miles at a slower pace.
There’s been some concern that female athletes may be particularly vulnerable to injury during their periods and the week or so leading up to menstruation. A few small studies have found that injuries may be more common in this time frame, but more research is needed to understand if there’s a direct link between period-related hormonal fluctuations and injuries. In the meantime, listening to your body is wise. If you don’t feel up for intense exercise, opt for light or moderate physical activity.
A few studies have examined the effect of the menstrual cycle on athletic performance. Most women won’t notice much of a difference, although researchers have noted that athletes who feel uncomfortable are less likely to perform well than athletes who are pain-free. Elite athletes may note a difference in their stamina levels; however, as a few studies have found that hormone levels can affect time to exhaustion.
Women who exercise regularly—defined as 45 to 60 minutes of physical activity at least three times per week—are less likely to suffer from menstrual pain, cramps, and mood disturbances. If cramps and pain are keeping you on the couch during your period, take an over-the-counter inflammatory pain reliever, such as ibuprofen. When the pain eases up, head out for a walk. You might find you feel better. (If not, give yourself permission to get back on the couch!)
Regular activity may help you regulate your menstrual flow too. One study found that women who are highly active are 10 to 19% less likely to experience heavy menstrual bleeding than women who aren’t physically active.
Exercise should not stop your period. If you haven’t exercised in a long time and suddenly start a vigorous fitness routine, it’s possible your period may be delayed. However, if it doesn’t return soon or becomes irregular, schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider.
Though a lack of menstruation is sometimes noted in serious female athletes, scientists have learned that amenorrhea (no periods) in female athletes is caused by energy deficiency. In most cases, athletes who aren’t getting their periods aren’t taking in enough food and nutrients to sufficiently nourish their bodies, and that can cause all kinds of serious health problems, including cardiovascular disease, bone thinning, and decreased immunity. A qualified nutritionist can help you figure out how to fuel your body.
Your period doesn’t have to disrupt your health and fitness goals. Understanding how exercise affects your period can help you adapt your fitness routine as needed.