How to Get the Most Out of Exercise When You're on Your Period

Woman strength training in living room

Getty Images / Thomas Barwick

Hitting the gym while you're on your period can quickly become overwhelming. There are a variety of factors working to squash your motivation—cramps, bloating, headaches, and a severe lack of energy. But the benefits of keeping active on your period are many, including reduced symptoms of PMS, less painful periods, and improved mood. 

Knowing which forms of exercise are best and how to adjust your workout routine around your cycle can help you navigate the hormonal changes and impending fatigue while still reaping the benefits of physical activity. Here are some tips.

How Hormones Affect Energy Levels

A typical cycle lasts 28 days and is divided into the follicular and luteal phases, with ovulation in the middle, usually on day 14. During your period, progesterone and estrogen are at their lowest, which can result in feeling less energy and motivation.

Although this is the textbook expectation of a cycle, many women’s cycles are different and can change month-to-month. For that reason, the experiences each person has will be different. Some may find their energy never dips, while others may have difficulty getting out of bed for a few days.

It’s a good idea to track your cycle and the changes that occur for you to gather data about how your body responds to hormonal fluctuations during the month. If your energy levels, pain, or mood disruptions become too much or interfere with your daily life, it’s wise to speak to a healthcare provider.

Hormonal Changes During Your Period

  • Day 1: Menses begins, estrogen and progesterone are low, which impedes dopamine, serotonin, and GABA. Less stress-tolerant until ovulation.
  • Day 2-7: Early follicular phase, estrogen begins to rise.
  • Day 8-14: Late follicular phase, estrogen is high; progesterone is low.
  • Day 14: Ovulation. Higher stress tolerance from here on out.
  • Day 15-21: Early luteal phase, progesterone spikes. 
  • Day 22-28: Late luteal phase, estrogen and progesterone are low.

Adjusting Your Routine with Your Cycle

It can be challenging to be physically active during your period—typically days 1 to 7 of your cycle. Lower levels of estrogen and progesterone and higher levels of inflammation may mean that you experience fatigue and a lack of motivation.

Research suggests that stamina and endurance levels are decreased during this time. Pair that with bleeding, cramping, and other unwelcome symptoms and the desire to get a workout in may be at an all-time low.

If this sounds familiar, choosing less physically stressful activities such as light cardio, yoga, Pilates, swimming, or lighter weight strength training might be more ideal than a high-intensity interval class or a lengthy running session.

One thing to note is that testosterone levels are higher during menstruation, which may result in better muscle-building activity when strength training.

After the first couple days of your period, if you're feeling more energetic, it is an excellent time to increase the intensity—assuming you've recovered well and are feeling up to it.

For some women, the fear of menstrual leakage can interfere with their desire to exercise. A menstrual cup or menstrual panties can be used to help alleviate this fear.

Ideal Exercises During Your Period

When it comes to exercise selection, anything that you feel good while doing and afterward is perfectly acceptable. Some people find their energy returns after the first couple of days of their period when hormones start to shift. Others need a few more days to feel their best.

However, research has indicated some forms of exercise can be more advantageous than others. If you experience symptoms like fatigue and cramping, certain activities may improve them, such as:

Walking

Aerobic exercise, such as walking, can significantly reduce PMS symptoms and cramping during your period. Researchers have dubbed aerobic walking as “very effective.” This research was performed on a treadmill, but you can certainly reap the benefits of fresh air and a change of scenery by walking outdoors.

A study published in the Iranian Journal of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Infertility found that 30 minutes of brisk walking during the first 3 days of menstruation reduces pain and cramping. A moderate walking pace is 2.5 to 3.5 mph, while a brisk pace is 3.5 to 4 mph. Choose whichever feels best for you.

Running

If you are feeling up to more vigorous forms of exercise, running may effectively reduce symptoms of PMS, like cramping. A study published in the journal Disability and Rehabilitation found that participants who performed vigorous aerobic activity on a treadmill three times per week for four weeks had reduced pain.

Swimming


Water often feels soothing for anyone with tension, pain, or fatigue. Taking your physical activity to the pool may provide additional benefits when you are on your period. 

Research published in General Gynecology found that participants who took part in swimming during their period benefitted from reduced anxiety, depression, tension, mood changes, feeling out of control, weak coordination, confusion, headache, tiredness, pains, breast tenderness, sleeplessness, swelling, and cramps.

The study was performed on 70 women, so more research would be helpful, but swimming is worth a try if you are hoping for relief from these symptoms during your period. 

Additional research solely on the effects of aquatic exercise for cramping showed similar results. The pain and duration of menstrual cramping were decreased during the 12-week study.

Yoga

Yoga is an excellent form of movement for those seeking pain relief for any reason, and menstrual pain is no exception. Research supports yoga as a therapeutic tool for many types of pain, stress, and anxiety. 

For adverse symptoms during your period, yoga again has been shown to reduce symptoms such as bodily pain, abdominal swelling, breast tenderness, abdominal cramps, and cold sweats.

In a review of 40 studies, yoga was found to be very effective for relieving cramping, menstrual pain and improving quality of life. Try restorative forms of yoga poses such as child’s pose, bridge pose, legs up the wall, and reclined twist.

It is a myth that certain poses, such as inversions, are dangerous during your period. It is safe to perform any yoga during your period, but wise to avoid any that aggravate pain or cramping. However, there could be a risk when performing twists and inversions if undergoing IVF treatments. Speak to a doctor if that is your situation or you have additional concerns.

Pilates

Specific research on the effectiveness of Pilates to reduce premenstrual stress and PMS symptoms in the Journal of Isfahan Medical School found that Pilates was even more effective than aerobic activity. The participants took part in Pilates exercise for 8 weeks during the study.

Another study in the Journal of Research Development in Nursing & Midwifery showed that Pilates, along with vitamin E, was effective for physical and psychological symptoms of PMS. In this case, the study participants practiced Pilates for four weeks.

Strength Training

It can be disheartening for those who enjoy strength training to experience a week of reduced performance, especially if you are trying to increase your weights or repetitions and find your progress has slipped instead.

While this can be frustrating, it is normal and still worth keeping up your routine, even if you have to back off on the load or volume. While some research indicates no changes in strength performance during any part of the cycle, your personal experience with your routine is likely to differ depending on your energy levels and general discomfort. Be sure to listen to your body and reduce effort as needed.

In fact, taking lighter weeks from your regular strength training routine is beneficial regardless of your cycle. Often called a de-load phase, planning a week of lighter load and volume by changing sets, repetitions, weight lifted, or all of these factors can boost the performance of future weeks. 

How to Safely Exercise While On Your Period

While there are no strictly off-limits exercises during your period, it is wise not to push yourself to extreme exhaustion. You may risk feeling symptoms of overtraining and then go into the following weeks of training feeling tired and sore, resulting in underperforming.

Watch your energy levels closely and prioritize sleep, nutrition, and recovery. There’s very good reason to continue being active during your period, but not to the detriment of your wellbeing.

A Word From Verywell

During your period, cramping, pain, and mood changes can be obstacles to overcome, and make exercise a challenge. However, there are many reasons why staying active during this time is an excellent choice, including making the less enjoyable aspects of your period more tolerable. 

Using this time to slow down, focus on self-care and restoration while continuing to move your body is a great way to compromise. Always listen to your body and avoid intensity levels or exercises that don’t feel right. Speak to a healthcare provider if any of your symptoms interfere with your quality of life.

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