Many women, like Mandi, who suffer from really, really bad period pains just want to curl up and die. The last thing they think will help, let alone feel like doing, is exercise. As a rule, we should listen to our bodies, but sometimes not. There is new research that shows two things:
- That exercise can help with painful periods or primary dysmenorrhea1
- Women benefit from exercising differently at different times in their cycles, which we discuss in more detail below.
The reality is that hormones govern women’s lives. The menstrual cycle happens because the hormone levels change. During your period, hormones make the uterus contract to expel the lining that has prepared for the possible implantation of a fertile embryo and subsequent pregnancy. Like with labour, these contractions can be extremely painful while the uterus expels the lining during her monthly period.2,3
Forever fluctuating hormone levels
As we keep on saying, women who menstruate, experience hormonal changes at every point in their menstrual cycle and this affects their energy and emotional levels. The box below is a useful explanation:
Week 1: On the first day of your period, estrogen and progesterone levels are at their lowest. But they begin a gradual rise during your period. It may be easier to get active than in the previous weeks.
Week 2: In the week after your period ends, your energy levels might begin to go up. Estrogen levels begin rising quickly in preparation for ovulation (releasing an egg from the ovary).
Week 3: Estrogen levels peak around the time of ovulation, about two weeks before the next period for most women. When estrogen levels fall quickly after ovulation and progesterone levels begin rising, you may feel more tired or sluggish than usual. This does not mean that you should not exercise. In fact, being active might help boost your mood and give you more energy. Try exercising first thing in the morning, before your energy level goes down as the day goes on.
Week 4: In the week before your next period, you may feel less energy as both estrogen and progesterone levels are falling (if you are not pregnant). Physical activity may help premenstrual symptoms (PMS) get better even if your energy levels are low.
Source: Office on Women’s Health: Physical activity and your menstrual cycle Assistant Secretary for Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. [online] Available from <https://www.womenshealth.gov/getting-active/physical-activity-menstrual-cycle>
Can you exercise when you have your period?
The short answer to the question, clearly, is yes. However, like most things, it’s complicated. If we carefully read what that box says, it also suggests that even though exercise, is good, there are two additional things to bear in mind:
Firstly, different exercises are better at different times in your cycle. Secondly, if you’re a high-performance athlete, these changes in energy levels could also affect your performance. More and more women athletes are talking about this, and the stress of having a period during competition with Wimbledon, and this year’s tournament, an example.4
Researchers are now looking at the impact of hormone levels on performance – in sport – and the winning US women’s soccer team used a period tracker to help manage the team’s training and nutrition ahead of the world cup.5,6
What can we learn from sports and academics?
There are so many reasons why women prefer not to exercise during their periods. Mandi avoided it for two reasons: she just felt too awful, and she was terrified that she might either “leak” blood or bleed more heavily.
Bearing in mind that during one’s cycle, energy levels go up and down, there is also research that shows that exercise can help both period pain and PMS:
The most obvious benefit is the one we all get from regular exercise: endorphins. Endorphins are also hormones. They are released when we exercise, and they are the body’s natural “happy pills” and painkillers. This means that sticking to your regular gym program will help with the emotional lows that come with periods and, potentially, period pains.7
Deal with the leak
While exercise may well help with the pain and emotional lows that come with your period, the fear of leaking and making a mess doesn’t go away. Two solutions, which Mandi says she wished had been available in her day, are the menstrual cup and reusable sanitary pads. The menstrual cup, even though it is not absorbent, can hold more menstrual blood than a tampon. Properly used, there should be no spots when you exercise. If, though, you worry about that, why not use a menstrual cup together with a reusable sanitary towel: for double insurance? These options are much less expensive than the disposable tampons and pads women used for most of the twentieth century.8,9
If even with exercise, you still have period pains, Cipladon tastes great and relieves pain and fever f-f-faster!
Disclaimer: The information on this site should not be used as a substitute for professional medical care or advice. Contact a health care provider if you have questions about your health.
- Dehnavi ZM, Jafarnejad F, Kamali Z. 2018. The Effect of aerobic exercise on primary dysmenorrhea: A clinical trial study. Journal of Education and Health Promotion [ online]. Available from: https://www.jehp.net//text.asp?2018/7/1/3/222749 30/11/2022
- Schoep ME, Adang EMM, Maas JWM, et al. 2018. Productivity loss due to menstruation-related symptoms: a nationwide cross-sectional survey among 32 748 women
BMJ Open 2019;9:e026186. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2018-026186
- Period Pain. National Health Service, UK [online] Available from <https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/period-pain/> 26/07/2022
- Nayder, R., 2022. Exercise and Your Period: Be Your Best When You Feel Bad. WebMD [Online] Available from <https://www.webmd.com/women/news/20220708/exercise-and-your-period-be-your-best-when-you-feel-bad> 05/12/2022
- Kindelan, K., 2019 USWNT used innovative period tracking to help player performance at World Cup Good Morning America [Online] Available from <https://www.goodmorningamerica.com/wellness/story/uswnt-innovative-period-tracking-player-performance-world-cup-64339368> 05/12/2022
- Steinmark, I E., 2022 Power cycle: could tracking periods help female athletes break records? The Guardian [Online] Available from <https://www.theguardian.com/science/2022/oct/23/power-cycle-could-tracking-periods-help-female-athletes-break-records> 05/12/2022
- Lindberg, S., Riggins Nwadike, V (Reviewer) 2018. Can You Exercise on Your Period? [Online] Available from < https://www.healthline.com/health/exercise-during-period> 30/11/2022
- Scaccia, A., Weatherspoon, D., (Reviewer) 2019. Everything You Need to Know About Using Menstrual Cups Healtline Media [Online] Available from <https://www.healthline.com/health/womens-health/menstrual-cup> 05/12/2022
- Kohli, S., 2020. Wondering if reusable cloth sanitary pads are hygienic? Here’s what a gyno says. Health Shots [Online] Available from < https://www.healthshots.com/intimate-health/menstruation/wondering-if-reusable-cloth-sanitary-pads-are-hygienic-heres-what-a-gyno-says/> 05/12/2022