4 Ways Exercise Affects Your Period
If you’re someone who loves a good workout (or, for that matter, someone who would really rather stay home, but who forces herself to go move her body anyway), it’s important for you to know how exercise affects your period.
We all know that exercise is good for you in a lot of significant ways. The Centers for Disease Control, for example, report that regular exercise (which is often defined as two and a half hours of moderate intensity aerobic activity per week) can decrease your risk for cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer. Exercise can alleviate depression and improve mental health, and it can help you maintain a healthy weight, strengthen your bones and muscles, and even increase your lifespan. Basically, it’s magic for your body. However, if you’re a person who menstruates, then you need be aware of how exercise interacts with your period — especially if you have an intense workout regimen. That’s because, although exercise can promote general good health and help to alleviate some of the symptoms of PMS, too much exercise can create problems for your menstrual cycle, which, in turn, can lead to other major health problems.
Keep reading for four major ways that exercise affects your period, in both good and bad ways:
1. Too much exercise can make your period disappear.
In general, exercise is great for health, but if you exercise too much, you can cause a condition known as “amenorrhea” (the “absence of periods"). Not having to deal with menstruation may seem like a good thing, but amenorrhea can have serious long-term consequences for your health and your future ability to exercise.
According to USC Fertility, intense exercise regimens can cause amenorrhea for a couple of reasons. If you’re involved in a sport or activity that is associated with low body weight, such as long distance running or ballet, you may be particularly prone to having trouble maintaining your period. That’s because, when you combine low body weight with intensive exercise, your body goes into “starvation mode” and begins to shut down systems that aren’t essential for survival — like your reproductive system. When your body thinks it is essentially starving, you stop ovulating and therefore stop having periods. However, even if you aren’t dealing with low body weight, intense exercise can still interfere with menstruation by triggering the release of stress hormones that mess with your body’s ability to release the hormones necessary for a normal menstrual cycle.
Amenorrhea is dangerous because it is accompanied by abnormally low levels of estrogen in your system, and this lack of estrogen can cause you to develop brittle bones (aka osteoporosis). That means that, even if you are young, exercise a lot, and are in good health, you have an increased risk of bone fractures now, as well as decreased bone density in the years going forward.
Thus, if you want to be able to exercise well into old age, it’s important to keep having your period and maintain your estrogen levels. If you exercise a lot and your period has disappeared or become infrequent, talk to your doctor. He or she may be able to prescribe medication (such as the birth control pill) that will help supplement your estrogen and protect the long-term health of your bones.
2. Excessive exercise can cause spotting.
Excessive exercise is much more likely to cause your period to stop than trigger bleeding, but sometimes overly intense exercise, as well as stress and weight loss, can mess with your normal hormone function and cause spotting between periods.
3. Exercise can help to relieve menstrual cramps.
If you suffer from painful cramping every month, you may find that regular exercise helps to provide some relief. According to Gustavo Rossi, MD, an obstetrician-gynecologist at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, exercising releases endorphins, which can help relieve menstrual pain. “It produces analgesia [pain relief] and helps to burn the prostaglandins — chemicals released during menstruation that cause muscle contractions — much faster,” Rossi told WebMD. To relieve period pain, try to focus on aerobic activities, like walking, swimming, running, or cycling (anything that gets your heart rate up and your blood flowing).
4. Exercise can also help with other symptoms of PMS.
The benefits of exercise extend beyond helping you cope with menstrual cramps. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends regular exercise (at least 30 minutes a day, most days) as a treatment for a variety of PMS symptoms, including headaches, depression, and fatigue. The organization stipulates that, for exercise to effectively treat PMS, you should exercise regularly, including on days when you’re not having PMS symptoms. (And why not? You’ll get all of the other great effects of exercise regardless).