How Your Hormones Are Affecting Your Workout

Turns out there's a very legit reason for your love-hate relationship with the gym...Illustration by Holly Walsh

Hormones Are Affecting Your Workout Health Fitness  Wellbeing

by Lauren Clark |
Published on

'You’re so hormonal' has long been used as an insult, used to call a woman out on showing any emotion which, rather than being a legitimate feeling is dismissed as being related to her 'time of the month'. But, here's the thing: our hormones don’t stop and start. There are roughly a hundred of them constantly flowing through our bodies at fluctuating levels and doing their thing throughout each and every month of the year. Because of them, our cells and organs tick along nicely helping us to...well...stay alive. Does that mind blowing fact make you feel a 'bit hormonal'? Me too.

A woman's reproductive hormone levels - oestrogen, testosterone and progesterone - will go up and down throughout her monthly cycle. This can mean serious changes to how you feel emotionally and physically, and you might not even realise it's happening. Cherish them for the week of glowy skin, seemingly all-you-can-eat energy and well-timed libido boost. Equally, blame them for that pre-Bumble date breakout, why you feel inexplicably CBA, or for that sudden pit of anxiety you seem to have fallen, head first, in.

Increasingly, we’re beginning to realise that our hormones have a lot to do with how effectively we can exercise too. 'Hormone levels change throughout the month, and this variation can affect your ability to exercise,' says Dr Sohere Roked, a GP and hormone specialist. In fact, they’ve become something of a wellness buzzword and, as knowledge of hormones advances (FYI: they were only discovered a mere century and a bit ago), experts are beginning to understand their influence on fitness, and are paying more attention to them than ever before.

Remember Chinese Olympic swimmer Fu Yuanhui? She hit headlines after saying her slightly worse than normal performance was down to getting her period. For women, knowing how your menstrual cycle might influence your gym schedule can be particularly helpful. It can determine whether you’re able to squat that extra 5kg, or if you should just call it a day after 10 minutes. We’ve all been there - frustrated at why our bodies seem to be fighting us - and knowing when to ease off on your pursuit of abs and focus on your mind instead is so important. We also all remember 'the chat' we got in year 9 PE: ''re period is not an excuse to be signed off games.'

So, here’s what your body is trying to tell you at each phase of your natural cycle (if you use the Pill, it’s a slightly different story) - and how you can plan a workout to match.

So, I’ve just come on - licence to chill and binge watch 13 Reasons Why, right?

Wrong. 'There’s no medical reason why you shouldn’t be able to exercise during your period,' says Dr Catherine Gordon, of the Society for Endocrinology. 'In fact, for many women, it can help ease symptoms of dysmenorrhea - that’s pelvic pain that comes with your period - and PMS.'

According to Gordon, it’s down to another hormone - endorphin - which is the body’s natural painkiller that’s related to morphine. It’s released during exercise and is what causes that famous ‘runner’s high’. Which makes sense because, in research published in the Iranian Journal of Nursing and Midwifery Research, aerobic exercise is particularly good for relieving PMS. So try swapping paracetamol for a few km instead. It’s what many of the pros do too. Research of 241 athletes, which questioned them about how their period affected their day job, revealed that 63 per cent of them said their pain decreased during training.

So, exercising during your period is most definitely safe, and even beneficial. But we do get it. Depending on your level of period pain, you’re not going to be on top form, and peeling on some leggings might seem like the last thing you want to do. It’s how 20-year-old Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui felt at last year’s Rio Olympics when she blamed her poor performance on feeling tired from bleeding. That said, the majority of us don’t need to smash a PB, and if exercising can help your cramps, you’ll probably feel better if you do.

But do avoid those squat jumps...

Although we can’t hear you complaining at the thought, we’ll explain anyway. It’s because at this phase in your cycle you’re most likely to hurt your knees. According to a study published in the North American Journal of Sports Physiotherapy you’re between four to six times more likely to have an ACL - key knee ligament - injury than men anyway. Sigh. But they appear to be most common just before, and at the start of, female menstruation when our knees have a tendency to move awkwardly as we land.

'Women are at an increased risk of ACL injuries during their period, and much research is being done looking into why,' explains Gordon. 'It’s suggested that at different stages of the menstrual cycle gait and jumping pattern might alter, that bone geometry changes to place more stress on the knee, and oestrogen deficiency makes women more vulnerable.'

As well as cutting down on the high-impact HIIT classes that place a lot of your emphasis on your knees, now’s the time to become acquainted with the weights area. In the same study, researchers recommended building up the strength in your hamstrings and glutes (try weighted lunges, deadlifts and weighted squats), doing single-leg balance work and plyometric jumps like box jumps - but with the emphasis on quality over quantity. They found that reducing the load on the knees in this way decreased injury risk by 50 per cent.

But back to your period - if it’s over you’re probably feeling pretty good, yeah?

Great, but it’s not because you no longer have to spend a small fortune on tampons, but, having fallen during your bleed, your oestrogen, testosterone and progesterone levels are on the rise once more for roughly another week.

This means energy and motivation people. 'When hormones peak mid cycle and you have high levels of oestrogen and testosterone you will feel most energetic,' explains Roker. 'This is the time to do your most intense exercise.'

And, while testosterone is more associated with men - they have up to 20 times more than us in their system - women can still be affected by it. In fact, you might benefit from this temporary natural increase. A study published in the journal SpringerPlus discovered that women could build more strength and muscle tone from resistance-based exercise or strength training during the first half of their cycle, compared to the second half. So enjoy ramping up those kilograms now.

Just don’t go too hard, yeah?

We’re often told no pain, no gain, but pushing your body too much can stress it out to a dangerous point. Very intense exercise triggers the release of another hormone, cortisol - also known as the ‘stress hormone’ - which can be bad for the long-term health of your bones and muscle.

'Cortisol damages our bone mass by causing increased bone breakdown and decreased bone formation, and less crucial calcium is absorbed via the digestive system,' says Gordon. 'It can also trigger muscle breakdown - known as sacropenia - which can likewise have an effect on bone density.'

Not to mention the implications this hormone has for our mood. Yes, exercise can do wonders for your mental health, but research has found chronically high levels of cortisol from very intense workouts can up your risk of depression and anxiety. Rather than releasing tension, pushing your body too far will place it in a rather stressful ‘fight or flight’ mode - aka when, as a cavewoman, you’d have to leg it from a bear. Which is the last thing you want to be feeling in the middle of your menstrual cycle.

And just when you’ve got the balance right, and got into your fitness groove...

On roughly day 14 of your cycle - and around when your burpee technique isn’t looking too shabby - you ovulate. That’s when the egg is released from the ovaries, and depending on your stage of life (or ability to remember where you’ve stuffed the condoms) will or won’t be fertilised by a sperm.

If the latter, it sends your oestrogen levels plummeting. “When these are low, you’ll probably feel more fatigued,” says Gordon. Any workout now will feel like a humongous effort, but if you are able to motivate yourself to do something, make it cardio or running once more. That’s because at this stage in your cycle your lung function is better, and endurance exercise feels slightly more achievable, according to a study published in journal Respiratory Physiology and Neurobiology.

But the really good news: you can fuel up on more food. Research by Penn State Universitydiscovered that women burn four per cent more calories during the second half of their cycle, meaning to maintain weight you can eat four per cent more grub. Hooray.

Finally, if you’re going to have a rest week, have one now...

At some point around day 22 - although it’s worth noting that everyone’s cycle varies - your body will begin preparing itself for your next bleed. You’ll start noticing the familiar cramps, fluid retention and mood fluctuations. Oh, and your body temperature rises by an entire degree. 'This might cause you to sweat more quickly during exercise,' says Roker, which would be enough to get us all hot, bothered and put off.

If you don’t feel like a full on spin session but are itching to do something, make it yoga. Obvs. A study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that just ten minutes of stretching daily could ease pain.

While it may not be true for everyone, the early signs of PMS can begin to affect your performance, and instead of stressing yourself out about the fact that training isn’t going so well, just give yourself a break. Your body won’t thank you for pushing it when it’s already got a lot else going on. Gordon says that while exercise has so many benefits and has become so revered in our culture, it’s easy to overdo it.

Listen to your body and work with your cycle, not against it.

Like this? Then you might also be interested in:

Could This Thermometer Overtake The Pill As Our Go To Method Of Contraception?

Crying Can Make You Happier, So Why Is It Seen As A Negative Thing?

We Rate The Best Wireless Headphones For Exercise

Follow Lauren on Twitter @laurenelclark

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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