Fitness Articles

Exercise and Your Period

What You Need to Know to Go with the Flow

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For two years I was a sex-ed teacher. One of my favorite subjects to teach was puberty, which required me to ever-so-gingerly reveal the story of the birds and the bees to a room full of red-faced fourth graders. Over the course of three days, I’d observe these kids in alternating states: wide-eyed with wonder, beside themselves in embarrassment, and rolling-on-the-floor in laughter. My teaching tools were simple: poster-sized drawings of the male and female reproductive organs, and a demo “puberty bag”, containing a variety of items that related to puberty, to help congeal the knowledge I’d (hopefully) transferred to them over the course of the session. Brave volunteers would blindly choose an item from the bag and explain to the class how it could come in handy during puberty.

Besides the obvious likes of sanitary pads and pimple cream, the kit contained a plastic ear, to represent the fact that it’s useful to have someone to talk to during the sometimes difficult years of adolescence, and a jump rope, to represent the importance of exercise. Those kids learned that exercise not only helps you to stay fit and healthy, but for the burgeoning women in the room, it could actually help ease unpleasant effects of the menstrual cycle, like cramps and bloating. If you’re reading this, you’re obviously not in the fourth grade, but that might have been the last time you reviewed the basics of your menstrual cycle. But if you're like most women, you might have never learned how to effectively mix that time of the month with a regular exercise routine. Read on for a period refresher, and information about how to work with your cycle when you’re trying to get and stay fit.

Cycle Basics
Your menstrual cycle begins on the first day of your period. It continues until your next period begins, usually about 28 days later. We break up the cycle into several phases, which occur as follows (keep in mind that every woman's cycle varies, so the numbers you see below are estimates):
  • Menstrual phase (days 1-4), when the uterine lining is shed.
  • Follicular phase (days 5-13), when menstruation eases, uterine lining thickens and ovarian follicles begin to ripen.
  • Ovulation (day 14), when the dominant follicle releases an egg.
  • Luteal phase (days 15-28), when the uterine lining continues to thicken and that dominant follicle becomes a corpus luteum. This corpus luteum will "live" for 2 weeks, but if implantation of a fertilized egg occurs, it will die.
All of these changes occur because of programmed fluctuations in hormone levels. Estrogen dominates during the follicular phase, and progesterone rules the luteal phase. Levels of both plummet sharply in the time preceding menstruation. But that's not all these hormones do. They can also cause changes in mood and other physical symptoms. Because of the sharp drop in hormone levels prior to menstruation, many women experience some of the following symptoms:
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Increased insulin responsiveness
  • Food cravings
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
Obviously, these symptoms can make exercising during your period unpleasant to say the least. But exercising can actually make your period more manageable, decreasing many of these symptoms. It is safe and beneficial to exercise during your period, unless your doctor advises against it. The only caution (for yoga practitioners) is to avoid certain yoga poses. (Some yoga experts recommend against inverted poses during a woman’s period, but other experts maintain that inverted poses are perfectly safe throughout a woman’s cycle.)
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About The Author

Liza Barnes Liza Barnes
Liza has two bachelor's degrees: one in health promotion and education and a second in nursing. A registered nurse and mother, regular exercise and cooking are top priorities for her. See all of Liza's articles.

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