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Too Much of a Good Thing? How Overexercising Affects your Period


Is it just me, or do others feel kind of sluggish and out of shape from those long, long months of fitness centers being closed?  I know there are some exemplary ladies with the self-discipline to carry on an exercise routine on their own.  I’m not one of those.  After a few months of a sporadic routine of half-hearted sit-ups and jumping jacks, it’s time to get back into some regular exercise.

Exercise is a very good thing. The Illinois Department of Public Health has a comprehensive list of the general health benefits of exercise for women and, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, “for many women, regular aerobic exercise lessens PMS symptoms”.

Too Much, Too Soon

Is it possible to get too much of a good thing?  Oh, you bet!  When starting up exercising again, easy does it. Pushing your body too hard for too long and with insufficient rest and insufficient calorie intake can contribute to all sorts of health issues. 

The U.S. National Library of Medicine lists a number of symptoms of over-exercising, including tiredness, depression, mood swings, trouble sleeping, sore muscles or heavy limbs, and getting more colds.

Over-exercising can also affect your menstrual cycle, not in a good way.  USC Fertility warns that excessive exercise can cause amenorrhea (absence of menstruation).  There are two classifications of amenorrhea – primary and secondary.   

Primary amenorrhea is when a girl has not had her first period by the age of 15 or 16.  Secondary amenorrhea is when a woman does get menstrual periods but has missed three or more periods in a row.

More specifically, hypothalamic amenorrhea, a type of secondary amenorrhea, is a condition that occurs when the hypothalamus (a gland in the brain that maintains the body’s internal balance) stops or slows the release of the hormone that starts the menstrual cycle.  The US Department of Health and Human Services notes that “common characteristics of women with hypothalamic amenorrhea” include

  • Low body weight
  • Low percentage of body fat
  • Very low intake of calories or fat
  • Strenuous exercise that burns more calories than are taken in through food
  • Deficiency of leptin, a hormone that regulates appetite and metabolism

(scroll down to read more)

If you expend more energy in exercising that you’re replacing with calorie intake, you can create a condition called “low energy availability”.  This is where the body thinks it’s in starvation mode, and it shunts energy away from what it considers “non-essential” functions like reproduction.

Gee!  Low body weight, low percentage of body fat, and no period to contend with sounds great, doesn’t it?  Sadly, no.  Even though a break from “Aunt Flo” is welcomed by some women, it is not a sign of good health. 

Long term effects of amenorrhea include infertility, vaginal dryness, hot flashes and, if it is caused by low estrogen levels you could also develop osteoporosis.  An increased risk of heart and blood vessel disorders has also been associated with amenorrhea.  So, while missing your period may seem like a welcome holiday from menstrual symptoms, it can be a health concern.

Exercising During Your Period

Can you exercise during your period?  Absolutely!  But rather than prolonged, vigorous exercise, try something like stretching, walking, biking, or swimming.  There’s some evidence that treadmill exercise can be helpful in relieving period pain. 

Some forms of dance are excellent aerobic exercises.  I’m not talking about those amazing feats of acrobatic athleticism we see among professional dancers; I’m thinking more along the lines of Zumba.  Dr. Edward Laskowski of the Mayo Clinic comments that “Zumba is a fitness program that combines Latin and international music with dance moves … to help improve cardiovascular fitness.”  He does also warn that if certain movements or positions hurt, you should modify the workout so as not to perform the actions that are painful.

The bottom line is that you certainly should get exercise but do the kind and the amount that’s right for you – something that will increase your general health and outlook, not something that’s going to cause you to develop health problems.

The Mayo Clinic has a guide that has some very sensible advice for starting and maintaining a fitness program. 

When to See a Doctor

An article in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism suggests that there is a greater incidence of oligomenorrhea (infrequent periods) and amenorrhea among women athletes than in the general population.  This seems to be particularly so with athletes doing weight-bearing activities.

However, it’s important to note that it’s not just athletes who suffer amenorrhea and that over-exercising is not its only cause.  Some medications such as some types of psychotropics, chemotherapy, and allergy medications can cause your period to stop.  Emotional stress can also play havoc with your cycle, as can glandular dysfunction.   

If you’ve been experiencing oligomenorrhea, amenorrhea, or have any other concerns about your menstrual cycle, your best bet is to consult a qualified health practitioner.

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