Our society posits two contrasting ideas regarding women’s health and fitness.
One camp argues that women should entirely disregard fitness and just love their bodies — even to the detriment of their health. The other asserts that women can and should work out like men — even to the detriment of their health. There’s a middle ground, but it’s becoming increasingly hard to discern.
It’s absolutely true that excessive exercise and an obsessive focus on “clean eating” can — and most often will — negatively impact a woman’s overall health. This doesn’t mean that females should swing to the opposite extreme and avoid working out altogether. We should, though, be mindful of the forms of fitness that ultimately do us more harm than good.
The Toll of Collegiate Athletics
As a collegiate runner, I experienced first hand the damage that immoderate levels of fitness can wreak on the female body. Four years of running 70+ miles a week, coupled with lifting sessions and inadequate nutrition left me severely underweight and without a menstrual cycle. By the time I graduated college, my hormones were completely imbalanced. This affected nearly every aspect of my health. I could run a fast 10K, but my hair was brittle and my skin was prone to breakouts. My bones were weak, and I suffered multiple stress fractures. I felt cold when others were comfortable in shorts and sundresses. I had difficulty regulating my emotions. Food scared me, but cravings constantly gripped me.
The five-year absence of my cycle which made it extremely difficult for me to conceive.
The worst effect of it all was the five-year absence of my cycle which made it extremely difficult for me and my husband to conceive. For a year, I saw doctor after doctor, underwent weekly lab work, and took every measure to rebalance my hormones — including drastically altering my approach to fitness.
Certain forms of exercise can induce athletic amenorrhea (the loss of one’s menstrual cycle). Low levels of body fat combined with intense exercise send the body into “starvation mode.” While in this state, the energy-deprived body shuts down all functions that aren’t considered essential — including reproduction.
Exercise causes stress hormones to be released in the body. In small doses, this is fine. When the body is constantly flooded with these hormones, though, it signals the brain to halt the production of reproductive hormones. Simply put, without adequate energy, all systems can’t be supported.
Chronic stress can signal the brain to halt the production of reproductive hormones.
This cessation in the production of reproductive hormones has long-term consequences. Because estrogen levels drastically drop in this state, the risks for infertility, osteoporosis, and even heart attacks are high.
Forms of Fitness and Exercise To Avoid
Ultimately, any type of exercise done in excess and unsupported by proper caloric intake can result in amenorrhea. Some forms of fitness are obvious culprits though. Distance running, gymnastics, and ballet top the list, as they emphasize a lean physique. Overtraining and undereating are common in these athletes.
While a common choice for women due to its reputation for being a calorie burner, steady-state cardio (such as distance running) can easily be overdone and lead women into an energy deficiency. It can also adversely affect your sleep, your energy levels, your mood, and even your ability to lose fat.
Overtraining and undereating are common in distance runners, gymnasts, and ballerinas.
CrossFit, which has become increasingly popular in the past decade, also builds and promotes a physique that’s unsustainable for women. The workouts are a series of intense, explosive exercises with very little rest in between. Recovery is not prioritized, which can quickly result in injury and energy deficiency. The body remains in a nearly constant state of stress while following CrossFit workout regimens.
Bodybuilding can also pose great dangers to the female body. In order to compete at their leanest, bodybuilders increase cardio and cut carbohydrates from their diet. It’s not uncommon for female bodybuilders to dip below 10% body fat — an extremely unhealthy level and one that can’t support normal estrogen levels, a regular cycle, or a functioning thyroid.
While any form of exercise can be done in a healthy fashion, some are certainly more risky by nature. One must strike the delicate balance between exercise, nutrition, and rest — a feat that can be very difficult.
How To Sync Your Cycle and Exercise
Instead of constantly working against hormones and risking a suppression of the reproductive system, women can actually exercise in a way that supports their cycle. Female hormones fluctuate throughout the month, affecting nearly every aspect of being, from energy levels to muscles and joints. Cycle syncing is a method of exercising based on each phase of the menstrual cycle.
In the menstrual phase, energy levels are typically the lowest as LH, progesterone, and estrogen levels have all dipped down. This is the perfect time for restorative yoga, walking, or barre workouts.
Cycle syncing is a method of exercising based on each phase of the menstrual cycle.
During the follicular phase, hormone levels are on the rise. High estrogen levels cause more pliable muscles, which put one at risk for injury. On the bright side, these high levels positively affect the brain, leading to greater creativity and an openness to new experiences. This is a great time to try a new exercise class, cardio, and light strength training. Just be sure to warm up properly so as to avoid injury.
You’ll likely feel your best during the ovulation phase, as this is when your hormones peak. This is the perfect time to engage in higher intensity activity like spin classes, HIIT, or sprint intervals.
Following this three to five day stretch of total vibrance, your estrogen and progesterone levels dip, rise, and then dip again during the luteal phase. You may feel more sluggish during this part of your cycle, so it’s a good idea to try higher intensity exercise during the beginning of this phase and then ease into lighter activity.
How To Recover from Overtaxing Your Body
If you find that exercise has been working against your health, it may be time to change your routine. Fatigue, trouble sleeping, and the loss of your cycle are all signs that you may be overdoing it in the fitness realm. In order to recover from this, it’s important to take a step back, focus on rest and proper nutrition, and allow your body time to heal.
When you’re ready to get back to working out, consider lower impact workouts such as barre, pilates, yoga, and walking. Once your hormones are rebalanced, you can ease into the rhythm of cycle syncing.
Fatigue, trouble sleeping, and the loss of your cycle are signs that you may be overdoing it in the fitness realm.
Plenty of women — even those in the fitness world — have had to follow a similar path towards recovery. Ashley Pitt of the popular blog A Lady Goes West wrote about how she went from working as a full-time fitness instructor to cutting her workout load in half (along with increasing rest days and caloric intake) in order to regain her cycle.
Like Ashley, I had to make drastic changes to recover from years of intensive training for cross country and track. After taking an entire month off from working out, I eased back into fitness with spin and barre workouts. I entirely ditched HIIT workouts, heavy weight lifting, and running. This period of active rest, coupled with proper nutrition, enabled me to rebalance my hormones and get pregnant.
Recovering from harmful fitness habits is both possible and absolutely essential to your long-term health. It’s important to weed through the extreme and contradictory messages of the fitness world and the body positive movement to find a balance that works for your body. As with most things, moderation is key and will enable you to become your most radiant, feminine, and healthy self.