A lot of women find themselves at their weakest during periods. While some squirm in pain because of medical conditions, others just find their day-to-day lives difficult because of the physical discomfort. Either way, women frown at the idea of being active let alone hit the gym.
“Many elderly women have told me that working out during periods will create problems to the reproductive system, even lead to infertility,” says Dubai-based Tahlia Cayanan, REPS Certified Personal Trainer, EMS (Electro Muscle Stimulation) Senior Master Trainer.
“I may have given my ears to that misinformation during my teens but now that I work full-time in the fitness industry, I know how our body works. Hormonal changes usually make our body feel fatigued or less energetic but never weak,” she says. “Also, working out is a less-guilty route when it comes to indulging in food cravings as part of PMS (pre-menstrual syndrome).”
Bend & blow the blues away
Dr Swati Gaikwad, Consultant Obstetrician and gynaecologist, Motherhood Hospital, Pune, says it is a fallacy that women must not exercise during periods. “Exercising or doing yoga can help one to tackle bloating, cramping, breast tenderness, headache, stomach pain, and even muscle fatigue,” she says.
“Try not to go overboard, though,” warns Dr Gaikwad. “Stop when you feel a drop in energy. Usually, there is a release of endorphins — natural pain killers — while working out; this in turn creates a surge in the dopamine levels that helps to relieve pain. Exercising also lowers inflammation, improves blood flow and rejuvenates mind and body.”
For Nagpur-based CrossFit enthusiast Neha Gore, it is all about listening to one’s own body rather than following a set pattern. “I used to think it is okay to skip workout sessions during periods; I had my days of lethargy. However, with time, I have learnt how much my body can take and I respect it. I do not engage in a very high-intensity workout during my periods. Mostly, it is a little bit of cardio, and not anything to do with heavy lifting,” she says.
An uphill task
Gore says she recently joined a month-long mountaineering course in an all-girls batch. The trails were difficult — glaciers, uphill terrains and rocky paths.
“During the course, we were not allowed to skip training sessions during periods. It was physically and mentally very challenging as we used to walk with 15-kg weights for hours every day,” she recalls. “The trainers did show us some leniency when we had our periods, but they never let us skip training even for a day. It made us physically and mentally strong.”
Go for pelvic muscle strengtheners
Gore believes that the physical and mental elements of working out go hand-in-hand. “After the mountaineering course, I became mentally strong in terms of setting practical milestones during my period days but never the idea of skipping exercise.”
For trainer Tahlia Cayanan, the first two days of periods are really hard and she experiences bouts of low energy during the entire cycle. “I tone down my sessions with a modified programme which is usually a combination of low-impact circuit or some light cardio. I also recommend a similar mild programme for my clients as well,” she says.
Countering a belief that working out during periods can damage the uterus and create stress on the pelvic floor, Cayanan suggests specific programmes like Kegel exercises that strengthen the pelvis floor muscles that support organs like the bladder, small intestine, rectum and the uterus. These exercises, she says, can also be done during pregnancy and after childbirth.
“Working out is the best way to reduce stress and have a more positive outlook towards life,” she says. “The ‘workout high’ that one experiences after every session is more than enough to get through a mentally and physically taxing period day.”
Zumba, light weights & stretches
Dr Gaikwad suggests dancing as a workout routine during periods. “It can help to reduce the severity and length of menstrual pain,” she says. Zumba, an exercise that involves both dance and aerobics, helps with lower back pains during periods. It is also recommended as a complementary treatment for primary dysmenorrhoea.
“If you are into strength training, use lighter weights while working out. In case of a lot of pain and uneasiness, try stretching exercises as it alleviates cramping,” she says. Stretches such as lower trunk rotations, the cobra stretch, knee-to-chest and standing forward bend are effective in reducing uneasiness and relaxing the muscles.
Gore also feels that stretching during periods is effective in managing the stress and pain associated with the cycle. “Sometimes, I do stretch routines like child, cat or camel pose instead of my regular workout,” she says.
Mind the limit – & the diet
For beginners, she recommends starting with a jog or a walk instead of hitting the gym. “Your comfort is what matters. Respect the body’s limits and do not push it to meet unrealistic targets.” Pilates is also a less strenuous form of exercising. It involves aspects of yoga and ballet which works towards strengthening the back which in turn reduces pain.
Besides exercise, Cayanan of Dubai also stresses eating nutritious food. “It is important to consume food rich in protein and omega-3 [fatty acids] which help to replenish the muscles after wear and tear. Chicken, fish and green leafy vegetables are high in omega-3 [fatty acids] which helps to manage period pain and mood swings,” she says.
For the sweet craving during those days, Cayanan says, “I make sure that my refrigerator is stacked with fruits and dark chocolate. Above everything, hydrate! Appropriate hydration lessens water retention which is also a reason for bloating during or after periods.”
The dilemma of what to wear
Periods are also a time when women are conscious of what they wear and how comfortable, protective and discreet the wear is. An ill-fitting workout gear or pad can deter a gym-goer.
“Working out wearing a sanitary pad is quite a hassle,” says Gore. “Pads can irritate the skin and the sweat can result in rashes. I switched over to the menstrual cup about three years ago.
Women even wear these cups and go swimming, but I don’t think that can be the case with pads or tampons.”
According to Cayanan, women should wear whatever they are comfortable and confident in as long as it does not restrict movement.”