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Exercise, pain and periods – what’s normal?

Everyone knows that regular, vigorous exercise is great for your health and wellbeing. But is too much exercise bad for your body? Should you exercise when you have your period? And what should you do when pain makes it hard to stay active?

When it comes to high-intensity training and fitness, women have specific health needs that need attention. In this article, I’ll explain the common issues I see in my patients.

High-intensity exercise can change your menstrual cycle

If you do intense physical activity often or for extended lengths of time, your periods may become irregular or not occur at all (known as amenorrhoea). This is the result of you using more energy than what you’re getting from your diet, which tells your body to stop making hormones that normally regulate your cycle. Irregular or absent periods caused by exercising too much are quite common.

Unless you are trying to get pregnant, you may think it doesn’t matter that your period is occuring less often or not at all. Unfortunately, there are long-term health consequences associated with prolonged amenorrhoea. When your body doesn’t go through the menstrual cycle, your levels of oestrogen go down. This leads to loss of calcium from your bones, changing your bone density and making it more likely that you will suffer from fractures in later life (a condition known as osteoporosis).

If you have irregular periods, it’s extremely important that you seek medical help. While the cause may be exercising too much (in which case your doctor may advise changing your training regime or diet), other health conditions can also make your periods irregular or absent, so it’s important to have a full assessment as soon as possible.

Your cycle may affect your exercise performance

Though there have been many studies investigating how the menstrual cycle affects exercise performance, there’s no clear evidence that women’s strength or endurance changes significantly at different stages of the cycle.

That being said, as your hormone levels change during your cycle, you may experience physical shifts in your body that change how well you perform. For example, you may feel bloated and lethargic or have cramps in the days leading up to your period. These symptoms can make it difficult to give it your all in your athletic endeavours.

Pain that makes it hard to stay active can be managed

The good news is that there are ways to manage your period and associated pain so you can perform at your peak. In fact, the most common reason I see female athletes is for pain that is affecting their training and physical performance. I’ve addressed the issue of severe period pain in a previous article, which you can read here. But even if you suffer mild-to-moderate period pain that gets in the way of you staying active, it is worth seeking medical help.

Some serious health conditions such as endometriosis and fibroids can also be the cause of pain and severe cramps, so it’s important to have a full assessment with a gynaecologist if you are suffering from these symptoms. They will discuss your treatment and pain management options to help you stay active.

Exercise can relieve period pain

It’s perfectly safe and recommended that you continue to exercise during your period. If your period is causing cramps, nausea or back pain you probably feel like curling up on the couch, but gentle exercise can actually relieve period cramps and other symptoms. This is because it increases blood flow and releases endorphins, which reduces the pain you feel.

Sports gynaecology: specialist care for female athletes

In recent years, the importance of specialist healthcare for female athletes has been recognised, which has led to the role of the sports gynaecologist. In fact, I was recently appointed as the team gynaecologist for the Melbourne Football Club’s AFLW team. My role is to help the team manage their health so that they can optimise their performance on the oval.

Don’t let pain get in the way of your performance

If you have concerns about exercise and your reproductive health, please don’t hesitate to book an appointment for a full assessment of your situation. Be assured that you don’t need to be a professional athlete to receive specialist care so that you can stay fit and healthy.

To make an appointment with me, call (03) 9418 8299 or book online.

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