Cramps, heavy bleeding, fatigue. Periods don’t exactly make you want to bound out of the door do they? But, is it actually ok to exercise when you have your period? Is it safe to work out when you’re menstruating? Is one type of exercise better than another when Aunt Flo is in town? There are many myths and misunderstandings when it comes to periods and exercise so let’s start with whether or not you should get fit while you bleed.
When I was teaching on the topic of women’s health to new running coaches at a 261 Fearless international training course, I received a very important reminder. Women’s health knowledge is not the same the world over. Some people may have looked at the title to this blog and said, ‘Yeah, of course you can!’ But in many parts of India, women are not even allowed in the kitchen when they have their period, let alone out on the street in their trainers. The African and Albanian women also said that it wasn’t widely known in their communities that it was ok to do so. Women in some communities are viewed as being more fragile, or even dirty during their period so are best kept away from exertion, other people and foodstuffs. If your answer to the question is an obvious yes, then you are lucky to have that personal knowledge and societal attitude.
Having said that, when your period has started and you’re feeling lousy, you might well question whether exercise is a good or bad thing. In general, the answer to the question is yes, it’s ok to exercise during your period, but there are a few things you should take into account:
The first couple of days are usually the heaviest; longer for some women. A very heavy period can make you feel light headed, dizzy and even a bit weak. If that’s the case, you might want to chose something less strenuous like walking or a stretch class. There’s the practicalities of dealing with a heavy flow and worrying about blood leaking out too which can make you feel less confident. A moderate or light flow shouldn’t interfere with your ability to exercise or affect your performance either.
Tips: Have a look at period pants which you can use on their own but also alongside tampons and pads to prevent blood leaking onto clothes. Very heavy periods can lower your body’s iron stores so make sure you have plenty of iron-rich foods and consider an iron supplement. Speak to your doctor about whether you need a blood test to check for anaemia (low red blood cell levels) and if there is a way to reduce or stop your period flow.
Whether it’s a dull lingering ache or sharper more intermittent pain, period pain is exactly that – a pain! Simple period pain is caused by increased levels of chemicals called prostaglandins which cause the muscular wall and lining of the womb to cramp up. Medications which lower prostaglandins, such as ibuprofen, can help to relieve period pain but whether exercise can is more controversial. In September 2019, a Cochrane review (a large review of all available studies) found that exercising at any intensity for between 45 and 60 minutes, three times per week, caused a large reduction in period pain. The authors pointed out however that the studies that were of poor quality so more research needs to be done. They also focused on women under 25 and didn’t include resistance training. We also don’t know from this whether exercising during a period itself, rather than simply ‘regular exercise’ week to week, will ease pain once it has begun.
Tips: Trial and error of your own situation is the best bet. When in pain, start with something gentle and see how you feel. Use ibuprofen (speak to a pharmacist if you are unsure whether it is safe for you) to reduce pain and make it possible for you to exercise.
There’s no doubt that hormones can affect how we feel and it’s not unusual to be lacking in energy in the lead up to a period and for a day or two once it starts. Oestrogen and progesterone levels fall before a period and gradually start to rise again once bleeding begins. Low energy is particularly common if you have heavy bleeding which can be very draining. (Check the tips in the ‘Blood flow’ section above). Exercise however is well known for giving an energy boost and a feeling of wellbeing. It can help you sleep better too which gives you even more energy. So, while it’s difficult, it’s a good thing to do.
Tips: Be kind to yourself but don’t be afraid to try. Just tell yourself you will exercise for ten minutes, whether it’s an online class or an easy run. The boost in your metabolism and the feel-good hormones circulating might be just the thing to recharge you. Have a healthy, light snack before you go and make sure you are well hydrated – being thirsty or tired won’t help your energy levels.
Most women have problems with their mood in the week before their period and this tends to improve quickly once the bleeding begins. If there is any persistent low mood, anxiety or plain grumpiness then exercise will definitely help. The mood boosting effects of exercise are well known and a strong reason many of us choose to exercise regularly. It doesn’t matter what type of exercise you do, you will feel some benefit. You might want the stress-busting effects of a high intensity work out such as boxing or running or perhaps a calming swim or yoga class. There’s no reason why your mood shouldn’t benefit as much during your period as at any other time of the month.
Tips: Get something in the diary and make a plan. It’s always best to be flexible and pick the activity you feel suits you best at the time. All exercise is good! Enlist the help of a friend if your motivation is lacking.
In summary, the evidence is clear. In most cases, exercising during your period is fine and beneficial. Having said that, I’m well aware that there are many women who suffer deeply during their period and can’t get out of the front door, let alone to an exercise class. I’d encourage them to seek help and make an appointment with their GP to see what can be done to make their lives easier. In the meantime, just know that any little thing you can do to move more will help to make you healthier.
There are more answers to questions like these and lots of health information to help you lead a happy and active life in my book Sorted: The Active Woman’s Guide to Health. Published by Bloomsbury and awarded First Place in the Popular Medicine category at the British Medical Association Medical Book Awards 2018.
Disclaimer: I can’t give personal medical advice and as always with health advice, reading something online doesn’t replace seeing your doctor who knows your medical history and can assess you in person. So, if you are unsure then always seek the opinion of a health care professional.