By: Alisa Vitti
If you’re tried different fitness routines to help solve your period problems, you know on some level that they don’t work for women. Maybe you made progress for a while, but then it stalled. Maybe you never made progress or, worse, your symptoms got more severe when you started a new health and fitness routine. This phenomenon is all too common. I’ve worked with so many women who started a new health protocol—like eating Paleo and doing short, intense workouts—and seen their symptoms get worse.
Why do most fitness routines fail women? Why do many exercise protocols make a woman’s period symptoms worse?
One-size-fits-all exercise plans don’t work for women because women are biochemically different than men. Women need to adopt health-promoting strategies that are designed to work for our unique female biochemistry — which is to say, we need to understand how our metabolism, cortisol, and calorie needs change throughout our 28-day hormone cycle, or our infradian rhythm. I call the infradian rhythm our “second clock,” because it is an innate timekeeper that helps regulate our hormone production. To achieve the results we’re looking for — to improve body composition, lose weight, improve our energy and mood, and erase period problems — we need to understand and support the hormone changes we experience throughout the infradian rhythm.
Why Most Exercise Plans Don’t Work for Women
Women are the biggest consumers of wellness-industry products and protocols. Yet most of the research behind these strategies is conducted on men, and women’s bodies work differently than men’s bodies. Women have unique biochemical needs that go unaddressed by exercise plans built around male-centered research. That leaves women to try different exercise plans, be disappointed, and then try some more. It’s a cycle that causes untold stress, energy, money, heartache, and sanity.
The fitness industry has good intentions. (Many people don’t talk about the gender bias in wellness research. I’m here to change that!) But when different exercise strategies are sold to the public as great for everyone, it can leave women feeling like it’s their fault if they don’t get the results they want. We can start to feel like we must not have done it right or tried hard enough or that we lack willpower.
Lack of willpower is not the problem.
The problem is that women, all too often, are following exercise protocols that benefit men more than women — or, in some cases, protocols that actively work against a woman’s hormones and sabotage her health and fitness goals.
Times up on the gender bias in the diet and fitness industry. As women, we’re biochemically different than men. When we adopt approaches that are designed to work with our unique biological distinctions—when we stop biohacking with the boys—we will start to see results.
The key to biohacking your unique female biochemistry is to understand your 28-day cycle and to match your food and exercise to your natural hormonal shifts. When you sync your self care with your cycle, you’ll experience easier periods, less PMS, reduced bloating, clearer skin, and improvements in weight and body composition. By acknowledging your hormonal reality, you’ll finally be able to look and feel your best.
When Women Should Do High Intensity Training
Here’s an interesting catch-22: historically women have been excluded from nutrition and exercise research because of how our 28-day menstrual cycle affects our metabolism. (Researchers assume it will mess up the data and so instead of designing tests for us, they just leave us out.) But it is precisely because of those hormone changes that we need research into how we should eat and move.
So the research on menstruation and exercise is limited, but not completely non-existent. We know a few things! First, research suggests that women in the luteal phase (the second half of the 28-day cycle) fatigue faster during workouts and need more time to recover. This is one reason to do higher intensity workouts during your follicular phase (the first half of your cycle) and save gentler movement practices, like yoga, for the luteal phase.
We know from another study that a woman’s resting metabolic rate (also known as our basal metabolic rate) decreases during the follicular phase, hitting its lowest point one week before ovulation. So doing high intensity workouts during this phase serves as a counterbalance to a slower metabolism.
What does this mean for scheduling your workouts? Do high intensity exercise during the first half of your cycle. Your metabolism is naturally slower during the first half of your cycle and HIIT training will speed it up. This will help you lose weight and gain muscle.
When Women Should Engage in More Restorative Movement
As estrogen and testosterone drop during the luteal phase, your energy for doing high intensity workouts will wane, too. And while a woman’s calorie needs go up during the luteal phase, her resting metabolic rate also rises. In other words, you will eat more in the last half of your cycle, but you will burn more, too.
As your energy slows in the luteal phase (the second half of your cycle), allow your workouts to slow down, too. Shift from high intensity bouts of exercise to activities like yoga, walking, and easy bike rides. Not only will these types of movements match your energy level (and you won’t be fighting your natural hormonal rhythms, which is counterproductive and unhealthy), but you will get better results, too. If you experience estrogen dominance (and almost every woman with period problems does), exercising hard all the time can backfire (I wrote more about why that happens here).
In the end, the biggest takeaway is that a woman can’t exercise the same way every day and expect to see results. When you align your exercise with your menstrual cycle, you can finally look and feel your best.
The Best Strategy for Timing Your Workouts
How can you create a sustainable exercise schedule that matches your menstrual cycle, delivers results, and fits into your busy life? By relying on the intuitive wisdom of your hormones, of course!
If you’re already a fan of FLO Living, then you’ve heard me talk quite a bit about synchronizing your diet and lifestyle to your natural hormonal fluctuations. It’s a system I call The Cycle Syncing Method™, and it’s the key to transforming your overall health. The first step is to track your cycle, which I recommend doing with the MyFlo app.
The next step is to modify the type of activities you do each day and adjust the timing of your workouts depending on where you are in your cycle. This will allow you to play to your strengths, and get the results you want, all month long. Start by moving HIIT workouts to the first half of your cycle and less intense exercise to the second half of your cycle.
How Long Should Each Workout Be?
Also keep in mind: It takes about 30 minutes of exercise to burn through all the glucose in your bloodstream. Once that’s gone, your adrenal glands pump out cortisol to trigger metabolic changes that help sustain your energy for a longer workout. Namely, your cortisol tells your fat cells to switch to sugar, which your body can use for energy.
While this may seem like a surefire way to melt unwanted pounds, that’s not the case for women with too much estrogen, which is a very common hormonal condition — and one of the primary drivers of a raft of period problems, from acne and PMS to heavy, irregular, or missing periods. When your body is overloaded with estrogen, the circulating sugar gets converted back to fat, perpetuating a vicious cycle.
If you’ve been suffering from period problems, or otherwise suspect that you have a hormone imbalance, focus your efforts on 30-minute exercise sessions.
Workouts For Each Phase of Your Cycle
Here’s the different types of exercise I recommend for each of the four phases of your menstrual cycle:
Workout: Walk – keep your workouts mild, even if you’re not feeling major discomfort.
When: An evening stroll is the perfect way to get some simple movement.
Follicular Phase (the week or so after your period)
Workout: Run or other cardio
When: Mid-day – your estrogen will be low and your cortisol levels will be just right for a challenging cardio burst.
Workout: High-intensity interval training or bodyweight circuit
When: Early morning – you’ll have tons of energy during this time of the month, so take advantage of that natural high! Your testosterone is higher during this phase, so whatever you do, feel free to go all out.
Workout: Pilates, yoga
When: Keep it early during the first half, and then transition into the early evening. You might still feel full of energy during the first days of your luteal phase, so feel free to keep doing more intense workouts early in the day. But if you start to experience PMS symptoms in the days before your period, it’s time to tone it down and switch to Pilates or strength training in the early evening. Restorative (yin) yoga before bed can also be hugely helpful in combating issues like moodiness and bloat.
What Happens to Your Body When You Start Exercising With Your Cycle
You can expect to lose weight and gain muscle more easily and sustainably, as well as prevent injury by varying your movement consistently. When you sync your exercise with your cycle, you’ll experience remarkable results. You’ll will also deepen your intuitive sense of what type of movement your body wants and needs every day—and at every phase of your cycle.
The Best Workout Routine For New Moms
For the entire 4th trimester you are in an extended menstrual phase and your food and exercise should match what is recommended for that phase of your cycle.
I know conventional wisdom – or at least gossip magazines – tell us that after giving birth we ought to crash diet and workout like crazy to lose the weight. Well, I lost 40 lbs. worth of baby weight in 6 months without depriving myself and without working out. I knew what my body needed. Many women suffer with adrenal fatigue and thyroid issues postpartum and that’s because they push themselves way too hard and deplete their stores of nutrients, energy, and hormones. Instead, I focused on nourishing myself with bone broth, homemade chicken liver pate, bison burgers, and rest.
I recommend that any woman in the postpartum period first and foremost listens to her body. That’s the key! As you start to feel more energized and ready for movement, track your cycle with the MyFlo app and begin to move according to the schedule I outlined above. Until then, rest!
Always remember that once you have the right information about how your body really works, you can start making health choices that finally start to work for you. You can do this – the science of your body is on your side!