Discover how planning a fitness regime around your menstrual cycle could help you work with – instead of against – your body
For those of us who menstruate, it’s tempting to swap our leggings for loungewear and take time off from exercise at certain points in our menstrual cycle, especially when energy levels are lacking or we have period cramps, but the physical and mental health benefits of exercise don’t stop during hormone fluctuations. In fact, experts suggest that sticking with a routine and carrying out regular exercise over the course of your cycle can help ease period pain. It’s just a matter of figuring out which exercises work best for you at the different stages of your cycle.
As hormones fluctuate during the menstrual cycle, it’s important to understand why certain exercises could suit the different stages. We ask gynaecologist and spokesperson for fourfive, Dr Nithya Ratnavelu, how to make exercise and the menstrual cycle work for you – no matter what time of the month it is.
How to exercise around your menstrual cycle
Here, we’ve used the average 28-day cycle as our rule of thumb, but everyone’s cycle is different (the average is to have a period every 28 days, but can also be between 21 to 40 days), so find what works for you and when. As always, regular, varied exercise, over the course of the month, is key, but if you’ve sometimes found your workouts not going the way you’d like or you’re more sluggish on some days than others and always wondered why, exercising around your cycle could be for you.
How to exercise during your period (days 1-7)
Listen to your body – fitness and the menstrual cycle are intrinsically linked. "Hormone levels [oestrogen and progesterone] are at their lowest at the start of the cycle when you’re menstruating and energy levels can be low, too. Some people crave carbohydrates and can suffer from cramps and lower back pain," says Dr Ratnavelu.
"Regular exercise reduces the amount of prostaglandin in the lining of your womb – the hormone responsible for inflammation and uterine muscle cramps."
"In addition, exercise, particularly aerobic, produces endorphins, which block pain receptors and can help reduce the sensation of cramps."
Because of the slump in energy during menstruation, low-intensity aerobic exercises, such as swimming, yoga, strength training and light cardio – including walking and cycling – can be easier on the body. They’re non-weight bearing activities and not very endurance heavy.
However, "listen to your body and, if you’re feeling you need to take a rest day, then do it," advises Dr Ratnavelu.
During this time, carbohydrates are the best source of fuel to power your workouts, because during the follicular phase (days 1-13), "your body’s better at metabolising them and using them for the vital energy needed to keep you going", says Dr Ratnavelu.
How to exercise during the late follicular phase (days 7-13)
"You might feel more energised pretty much as soon as your period ends during the late follicular phase," says Dr Ratnavelu. "This is because oestrogen levels have increased, which can help boost mood and raise energy levels, so you may be more keen to workout."
There is a rise and peak in the middle of the cycle and then again in the second half of the cycle. This can be an ideal time to do strength training or high-intensity exercise.
"However, you should take care during your workouts as the rise in oestrogen levels can make ligaments more lax, which may increase your chance of injury."
How to exercise when you’re ovulating (day 14)
Some studies have shown that ovulation results in a surge of testosterone, which helps with the growth, maintenance and repair of muscles and bone mass. "This is the perfect time to build your muscles during your workout routine," advises Dr Ratnavelu.
"It’s also a great time to do those high-intensity workouts, such as circuit training, HIIT and running. Ideally, and if you are up to it, push yourself during your workouts right now."
How to exercise during the mid-luteal phase (days 20-23)
Take it easy during your premenstrual phase. "The mid-luteal stage is when we may feel the most tired," says Dr Ratnavelu. "This is because progesterone levels in the body are at their highest. Progesterone can leave the body feeling tired, quicker to exhaust and likely to overheat."
"With running, you can heat up quite quickly when your progesterone levels are high, so in the late luteal phase you could feel a bit more hot."
"Even a degree rise in your body temperature means that when you’re running or doing some sort of cardio that makes your temperature rise, you’re going to reach that threshold of exhaustion sooner."
During this time in the menstrual cycle, it’s usually best to stick to "moderate-intensity training, such as aerobic exercises including swimming and dancing, or gentle strength training exercises, such as pilates", advises Dr Ratnavelu.
How to exercise during the late-luteal phase (days 24-28)
"Similarly to stage one, the late luteal, or premenstrual part of the menstrual cycle, can bring an increased metabolism that tends to lead to craving carbohydrates," says Dr Ratnavelu.
While an increased metabolism isn’t enough to induce calorie burn or require you to eat more (sorry), Dr Ratnavelu recommends avoiding any kind of endurance activity that could further increase your metabolic rate.
Like the menstrual phase, exercises that work during this period of the cycle are low-intensity workouts, long walks and yoga.
And make sure you fuel rigorous activity with nutritious, slow-release carbs, such as oats, beans and pulses, wholegrain rice and quinoa. "Particularly in the premenstrual phase, you do need to match your calorie and carbohydrate intake with what you’re doing, otherwise you’re going to feel really depleted and it will take it out of you," she adds.
Fuel for thought
It’s important to remember that everyone’s cycle is different and the trick is finding what works for you. For those who’ve always wondered why they find running (or other cardio-based exercises) super-easy just after their period and then harder during the premenstrual phase, exercising around your menstrual cycle could be your ticket to maximising your workouts and feeling in sync with your body.