Cramps, spotting, mood swings and just feeling "blah" — getting your period is not exactly a party, no matter your age or activity level. But for those of you who want to be active and work out regularly, you may be wondering about the effects of exercise on your menstrual cycle.
Exercising affects your period positively in many ways. It can create a lighter flow, reduce PMS symptoms, decrease bloating and improve your sleep. However, it may also affect your energy levels, cause breakthrough bleeding and lead to missed periods.
Effects of Exercise on Menstruation
Every woman is a bit different in how her body handles mensuration and symptoms may vary month-to-month, but the struggle can be real.
According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, common physical symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) include breast tenderness, bloating and weight gain, headache, swelling of the hands and feet, fatigue, skin problems, gastrointestinal symptoms and abdominal pain. Emotional symptoms include depression, anger, irritability, anxiety, confusion, social withdrawal, poor concentration, insomnia and changes in sexual desire.
Whether you are experiencing some or all of these symptoms, the last thing your body might feel like doing is exercise, but doctors agree that it's perfectly OK to do so — in fact, it's encouraged. In fact, women who exercise regularly are less likely to suffer from PMS symptoms.
The effect of exercise on your menstrual cycle can be complicated, to say the least. Generally speaking, there are both pros and cons, but the pros certainly outweigh the cons.
The Pros of Period Exercise
When you exercise regularly, you may notice that your periods become lighter and lighter. Don't worry — this is completely normal, and it all has to do with the amount of estrogen your body is producing.
The more body fat you have, the more estrogen you produce, which stimulates the growth of the uterus lining and leads to heavier menstrual flow. When you work out regularly, your weight and body fat mass decrease, which results in less estrogen production and therefore, a lighter flow.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, regular participation in aerobic exercise may reduce overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilize mood, improve sleep and improve self-esteem. Even five minutes of aerobic exercise can have this effect. That's because physical activity releases endorphins, or "happy hormones," that detract from menstrual pain.
When you feel sluggish and bloated from your period, you may turn to a bag of chips or pizza for comfort. Sadly, stuffing your face with junk food often leaves you feeling worse and even more bloated than before. When you turn to exercise instead, even if it's just going for a short walk, jogging outside or doing a series of yoga exercises, you will feel some relief.
Any type of exercise is good when you are on your period, but high-intensity interval training (HIIT) may have the biggest impact on relieving period bloat. When you sweat, which you do quite a bit when you train this way, water leaves your body, which can have an instant effect on bloating. Plus, you release even more endorphins during a HIIT session, which can sometimes eliminate PMS symptoms altogether.
Exercise may also improve your sleep during menstruation. This comes as a result of decreased cramping and discomfort, as well as the endorphin release. In other words, when your mood has improved and you feel less physical pain in your belly, legs and back, you are inclined to sleep better.
The Cons of Period Exercise
You may notice that your overall energy level shifts when you have your period. Many women report lower levels of energy while menstruating, which can certainly impact their workouts for a few days.
However, this isn't always the case. A small study of nine sub-elite female soccer players published in the journal PLOS One in March 2017 showed that menstruation didn't have a huge impact on the participants' jumping and sprinting performance.
If you're on birth control pills, your energy levels may be more consistent throughout the month. Everyone responds a bit differently to birth control, however, so this concept cannot be generalized.
Breakthrough bleeding, or "spotting," is perhaps one of the most frustrating effects of exercise on your menstrual cycle. Since exercise can cause subtle changes in your hormone levels, it may interfere with the buildup and shedding of your uterine lining. When these types of interference happen, they may cause breakthrough bleeding, which is typically lighter than your regular period, but frustrating nonetheless.
This problem may occur during or after exercise, or throughout the month. If you have concerns or the breakthrough bleeding is heavy or impacts your day-to-day life, talk to your doctor right away.
Exercise and menstrual cycle irregularity are quite common. While regular exercise has the ability to lighten your flow and cause spotting, it can also stop your flow, which can create confusion and concern.
A missed period isn't always a huge red flag, but it's one to monitor for sure. Not only can a missed cycle mean pregnancy or other underlying health conditions, but the American Council on Exercise warns that it may be a sign of overtraining as well.
As a general rule of thumb, if you have a missed period for two or three months in a row, discuss these changes with your healthcare provider, who can give you a much more personalized diagnosis.
Reduce PMS Symptoms Even More
Choosing whole foods high in fiber and protein most of the time, for instance, can help. Try lean protein sources like grilled chicken, salmon, and whole fruits and vegetables like raspberries, blueberries, spinach and kale.
Avoid foods and drinks with lots of caffeine, salt and sugar in the two weeks before your period. Don't smoke either, as women who smoke report more and worse PMS symptoms than non-smokers.
Finding healthy ways to cope with your stress level can also help. The Office on Women's Health recommends yoga, meditation and self-care rituals like getting a massage. These tactics, coupled with regular exercise, can have a positive impact on your period and lead to a much more comfortable monthly experience.
- Office on Women’s Health: “Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)”
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America: “Physical Activity Reduces Stress”
- The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: “Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS)”
- American Council on Fitness: “Overtraining | 9 Signs of Overtraining to Look Out For”
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: ”The Effects of Menstrual Cycle Phase on Physical Performance in Female Soccer Players”
- Nationwide Children’s: “Yoga Exercises and Menstrual Cramps”
- Better Health Channel: "Obesity and hormones"