What Does Exercise Have to do with Fertility?
Sorry guys, this one is for the ladies! You don’t have to feel left out just because we are talking about “that time of the month”, though. This information is really important so please share it with the ladies in your life.
The truth is, most of us are not training to become professional athletes. We aren’t in the gym working day in and day out because we plan to be a professional athlete or bring home an Olympic gold medal. Most of us exercise because we wanted to get strong, flexible, and functional…and maybe look a little better in our favorite pair of jeans! Basically, we are training for life. We want to be the healthiest version of ourselves, and part of that is protecting the health of our monthly cycle and fertility.
Before we talk about how exercise and lifestyle can affect these things, let’s go back to science class and talk about what a normal monthly cycle looks like. It all starts with the first day of your period.
WEEK 1 – Estrogen and progesterone (female sex hormones) are at their lowest levels causing the uterus to shed its lining, which is what causes you to bleed. At the same time, Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) is released by the pituitary gland to stimulate the ovary to produce an egg follicle that will later develop into an egg.
WEEK 2 – Ovulation. The egg continues to develop and your estrogen levels begin to build again as your body prepares for ovulation. Near the end of this week, luteinizing hormone (LH) rises, which fully matures the egg and triggers it to be released from the follicle so it can travel through the fallopian tubes to the uterus.
WEEK 3 – After ovulation, progesterone rises and estrogen falls in preparation for a possible pregnancy.
WEEK 4 – In the absence of a pregnancy, progesterone and estrogen naturally fall. This triggers menstrual bleeding and the shedding of the unfertilized egg along with the uterine lining as the cycles begins again.
Whew! Okay, so how exactly do exercise and lifestyle affect this intricate cycle? When your body is over-stressed, meaning physical, environmental or mental/emotional stressors, these hormone patterns can be disrupted and stress hormones can become elevated. When this disruption causes missed periods, it is referred to as hypothalamic amenorrhea (also referred to as exercise-induced amenorrhea). These stressors can include:
- Reduced calorie intake
- Intermittent fasting
- Increased exercise
- Rapid weight loss
- Not enough rest and recovery time between workouts
- Lack of sleep
- High intensity workouts
- Long duration workouts
This is not to say that any one of these is inherently bad, but if you have noticed any changes in your cycle, or have had trouble getting pregnant, this may be something you want to take a look at. Basically, when your body is in a constant state of stress, non-essential processes begin to shut down. You don’t need to get your period to stay alive, but you do need a functioning brain and respiratory system (among other things) so your body is going to focus on these essential functions, letting others fall by the wayside. In addition to missed periods and fertility issues, hypothalamic amenorrhea can also cause decreased bone mass due to low estrogen levels, leading to possible bone breaks and osteoporosis later in life.
Note – There are other causes of amenorrhea so please consult with your physician if you experience irregular or missed periods.
Everybody is different. Some women can train twice a day every day of the week and notice no negative symptoms. Others may begin to see symptoms of hormone disruption if they try to maintain this same level of activity. If you experience irregular or missed periods, here are a few tips to help protect your fertility and the health of your cycle:
Maintain healthy body fat levels – somewhere in the range of 15% to 19%, but this is going to be different for everybody. Make sure you are eating enough food and NEVER fast after a workout.
Add more rest days between workouts – try cutting back your overall volume by a day or two a week, or try a one day on and one day off pattern.
Decrease workout intensity – go lower with weights and don’t work out to the point of exhaustion every single time.
Get enough sleep – Most adults need at least 7-8 hours per night. That means going to bed by 9:00pm or 9:30pm for a 6:00am workout the next day!
If you’d like to learn more or have a desire to address your specific health concerns, I’d love to talk more with you about how diet and lifestyle coaching can help you meet your health goals. I offer free 15-minute consultations so you can decide if my services are the best fit for your needs. Shoot me an email at [email protected] or visit the contact page on my website to get started!
Tarah Chieffi is an author, writer and holistic nutrition educator with a Master of Science in Health and Nutrition Education from Hawthorn University. She trains and coaches nutrition courses at Four Barrel CrossFit. She is also a Stretch-n-Grow coach and teaches aqua fitness classes at the YMCA. Tarah’s passion is working with individuals and families to achieve health and happiness through physical fitness and a real food lifestyle.
Tarah is the author of The Everything Paleo Pregnancy Book and has written for many print and online publications.
You can learn more by visiting her website at WhatIGather.com