Muscle aches, fatigue, an overall yucky feeling—nobody would blame you for skipping the gym with symptoms like those. Except when you're on your period. The truth is, toughing it through a workout can actually relieve the most common menstrual complaints, not to mention that taking a week off from exercise each month can have a serious impact on your fitness goals, says Irv Rubenstein, PhD, an exercise physiologist in Nashville, Tenn. These expert-recommended exercises can help you sail through your cycle.
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Walking, running, the elliptical trainer, and other forms of cardio will help raise endorphins and get you out of the period funk, says Amanda Young, group fitness instructor and certified personal trainer based in New York City. "Endorphins also serve to reduce cramps and headaches," she says. Cardiovascular exercise is good for increasing blood flow throughout your body and moving it away from where you're feeling discomfort or pain, says Mary Rosser, MD, an obstetrician-gynecologist at Montefiore Medical Center in Larchmont, NY. "If you're just starting out, keep in mind that the day you have your worst cramps is not the day to start a new program."
High intensity interval training (HIIT) is more effective at blasting fat during your period than any other time of the month, according to Stacy Sims, PhD, an exercise physiologist for USA Cycling Women's Track Endurance Program and co-founder of Osmo Nutrition. "When your period starts, your estrogen and progesterone levels drop," Sims explained to Health in an earlier interview. "And because of this, women can access carbohydrate/glycogen easily, as compared to high-estrogen time periods [when we] rely more on the slow breakdown of fat." In short: this hormone shift makes fuel more accessible to your body, enabling you to push harder and get more out of these intense workouts than when your estrogen levels are higher.
Moving to the music goes a long way toward feeling better overall, says Young. "Taking a Zumba class or even turning on the music in your own home and dancing can liven up a dreary day," she says. Big free flowing movements increase flexibility of your joints and "can fight off that period stiffness." Dancing does double duty by lifting your mood and helping burn calories—an hour of Zumba can burn up to 600 of them. "Cardiovascular exercise can also help diminish cravings," says Dr. Rosser.
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Your estrogen levels are at their lowest during your period, says Young, "which could make you feel more powerful when lifting weights. Just remember not to lift too heavy a weight as it puts pressure on your core and may worsen cramps." If you experience fatigue during your period, cut back on the resistance a bit to avoid injury and focus on using perfect form.
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Stretching helps lengthen muscles and reduce cramping. A stretch where you bring your knees into your chest (standing or lying) can alleviate menstrualback pain, says Young. "Remember to take big belly breaths, which will help dissolve tightness in your muscles and bring warmth to your midsection." Move into the stretch slowly and refrain from straining against the tension. You can increase the stretch as the tension loosens, says Young. Hold stretches 20 to 30 seconds.
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A relaxing dip in the pool can be just what you need to ease cramps and get you moving. Swimming increases circulation and blood flow to the body, reducing cramps, says Young. "It is gentle on stiff joints and takes pressure off of the lower back." However, if your cramps are so severe and have you doubled over, unable to breathe, you might want to skip swimming.
Taking deep breaths, whether on their own, during meditation, or in combination with a practice such as Pilates or yoga may help ease menstrual cramp pain, says Dr. Rosser. Breathing deeply relaxes your whole body, including the muscles in the uterus, which contract with the menses to expel blood. Since this contraction is also behind painful cramping, deep breathing can help alleviate these cramps, Dr. Rosser adds.
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Yes, doctor's orders. While it's not technically an exercise, sex counts as an activity that can help ease menstrual pain and cramps, says Dr. Rosser. "When you have an orgasm your pituitary gland releases a chemical called oxytocin, which causes contraction of the uterine muscle," she explains. "This helps relieve cramps and gets blood flowing to the area." Orgasms also release endorphins, natural painkillers, and mood boosters that help with irritability and even mild depression associated with your period.
Many yoga poses stretch out the lower back and the muscles around your pelvis that cramp up during your flow, says Dr. Rosser. The deep breathing associated with yoga also helps relax muscles. Regular yoga practice (35 to 40 minutes a day, six times per week) decreased anxiety, anger, and depression and increased overall wellbeing in women during their menstrual cycle in one small 2013 study.
Unless you have cramps that double you over, most exercises help ease symptoms, not worsen them. Yet, studies show that there may be an increased risk of ACL (knee ligaments) tears during certain phases of the menstrual cycle, says David Geier, MD, orthopedic surgeon in South Carolina. "Generally activities that involve landing from a jump or planting your foot and turning your body quickly could lead to an ACL tear, so those activities might be ones you would refrain from temporarily." Geier notes that it's only a small increase in risk and that if you enjoy these types of activities, most orthopedic surgeons would not discourage them.