I am a self-confessed lover of working out. While extremely happy to be holed up in my house, I can be persuaded to come outdoors or meet people (in pre-covid times) if they promised me a good workout. The only time I still give it a second thought is when I am on my period.
Don’t get me wrong. I have completely normal, non-fussy, without-homicidal-urges periods usually. But I do feel lethargic for a few hours, and this got me wondering if the lethargy is normal or if I was making a big deal of it. I started by asking a few friends and it turns out that many of them felt the same, or worse. But it left the basic question—which I am sure almost every woman has asked at least once—unanswered: Should you work out on your period?
Scientifically speaking, someone who is generally healthy and has no underlying medical conditions can work out during their periods. “With age, the menstrual cycle and period flow changes. So it is natural that the capacity of the woman anyway decreases with increasing age. While medically there is no problem at all, it is just that the woman has to decide for herself how good she is feeling on that day,” explains Nidhi Chauhan, consultant gynaecologist at Mumbai’s Saifee Hospital.
Everything else one may be feeling—including heart rate fluctuations, blood pressure changes—can be traced back to changes in the levels of the two hormones, estrogen and progesterone. As these fluctuate, a healthy body can balance these minute changes and maintain its regular functioning. However, if anyone has an underlying condition, they may experience greater changes in the week preceding the period.
The question about a decrease in stamina, is, according to Chauhan, just a myth (there goes my excuse!). “A woman who has been bleeding more than usual, for many cycles, will feel lethargic because she is starting to get anemic. On blood reports, her hemoglobin may come normal, but her stores are getting depleted. Most women ignore this, and think she is fatigued because she is working out,” she adds. She does add that women who have any kind of hormonal imbalance are more prone to pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS).
While undergoing PMS, just before your periods, you have breast tenderness, and you tend to retain water, so your weight increases by at least 1kg. PMS itself can cause fatigue, and the treatment is exercise—yoga or even a light workout. So should you train during your period? According to nutrition coach Sheena Roy, this would depend on period symptoms. If your symptoms, including cramps, discomfort or body ache range from bad to severe, it is a good idea to replace hard training sessions with lighter ones or to opt for low intensity activity, like walking. If your symptoms are mild, Roy suggests sticking with your normal training routine or focusing on upper body sessions and machine-based lower body exercises. After all, compound movements like squats or deadlifts might be uncomfortable during the first few days of your period.
Roy recommends that women definitely do some degree of physical activity as evidence suggests that being sedentary can worsen cramps and body-ache. Some light activity may actually relieve these symptoms. "Many women may find an increase in strength during their period, in which case, increasing the load in your strength training routine and working in the lower 5-8 rep range," she says.
Ruheen Sheoran, a pilates instructor at Redmat Pilates, echoes this sentiment. “I personally do not avoid any movements. I start with low intensity workouts and gradually build up to higher intensity workouts towards the end of my cycle. It's very important to listen to your body, if any particular movement or exercise position causes you discomfort, you can avoid it or make modifications,” she says, adding that the focus on breathing and stretches in Pilates can help reduce muscle tension and cramps, making movement easier.
Exercising is also important because the endorphin release can help hormonal balance for people who might have insulin resistance or excessive weight, among other issues. “Curtailing the amount of caffeine and salt in pre-menstrual period can help women feel better as well,” says Madhu Goel, associate director, Obstetric and Gynaecology at Fortis LaFemme, New Delhi.
So, ladies, go do your workout. 20 minutes spent on yourself might just change how you feel even on the lowest of days.