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Exercise, PMS and period pain

Help alleviate PMS symptoms and period pain through exercise

Exercise may be the last thing in the world you feel like when you are craving chocolate, harboring murderous thoughts or doubled over with cramps, but persevere and you may find that exercise helps alleviate both PMS symptoms and period pain. And even more intriguingly, that getting to know your menstrual cycle helps you maximize your workouts.

Research by Arkansas University found that women over 30 who exercised regularly reported less cramping, bloating and breast tenderness than sedentary women, although they were not entirely symptom free. If you suffer from sore breasts as part of your pre-menstrual box of tricks, the first port of call is a really good, supportive sports bra. It may be that you need a sports bra specifically for this time of the month, when your breasts are larger.

As far as menstrual cramps are concerned, it seems that intense training eases the pain more effectively than prolonged, gentler exercise. So try doing your interval work or a vigorous circuit session when you are suffering, to see whether this works for you. However, if you suffer more from PMS than period pain, a study at Dukes University found that aerobic exercise was more effective at alleviating the symptoms (particularly mood-related ones) than intense exercise.

Woman running

Female athletes have achieved world records in all different phases of the menstrual cycle, so there’s no reason why being pre-menstrual, or menstruating, should affect your performance. But research from Ohio University shows that exercising in the second half of the cycle, when progesterone and estrogen levels are high, burns more fat than other times of the month.

A small group of women with normal menstrual cycles were asked to do a single intense aerobic workout five to seven days after the start of their periods and again five to seven days after ovulation (during the luteal phase). The women not only burned less fat earlier in their cycles, they also perceived the workout to be harder. This could be because estrogen levels influence our pain tolerance. When estrogen levels are high, the brain’s natural painkiller system responds more potently when a discomforting experience occurs, releasing endorphins to dampen the pain signals. But when estrogen is low, the same system doesn’t control pain nearly as effectively. So it may be wise to schedule tough workouts for when estrogen levels are high and you can push harder for longer.

Finally, if you are trying to lose weight, and feel ravenous in the days between ovulation and your next period, it may be that you need more magnesium. The recommended daily allowance is 300mg, which you could get from eating a bowl of bran cereal with milk and chopped banana or a 50g pack of mixed nuts and raisins. A Penn State University study has shown that women instinctively eat about 4 per cent more calories per day (approximately 80 calories for the typical woman’s energy intake) during the second half of the cycle, but also burn about 4 per cent more calories, so don’t try to starve yourself.

The best way to gauge the effect of your menstrual cycle on your workouts is to make a note of your periods in your training diary. If you always perform well at a particular time of the month, make the most of it!

Your monthly cycle explained

Day one of your cycle is the first day of your period. At this time, levels of estrogen and progesterone are low, but both rise steadily from the moment bleeding starts. At the same time, levels of another hormone, called follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), are elevated to prepare for ovulation. Just before ovulation (usually at 14 days), levels of estrogen (which has reached its peak level) and progesterone drop, while FSH reaches its peak, along with a fourth hormone, called luteneising hormone. An egg is released from the ovaries and while estrogen levels continues to fall, progesterone now rises to its peak level towards the end of the two weeks leading up to the next period (known as the luteal phase).

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