Many women experience changes in their mood, appetite, and energy levels during their menstrual cycle. Though these changes manifest themselves in different ways for different women, these symptoms are all driven by the same hormone fluctuations over the span of a month. These symptoms are often predictable, but it can still be really frustrating when you are breezing through your workouts one week and then unable to finish them the next.
Recently, “cycle syncing” has become a popular topic in the health and fitness world. Cycle syncing looks at exercise through the lens of each hormonal phase in the menstrual cycle and adjusts the type of physical activity accordingly (4).
Why is cycle syncing necessary and what effect does it have on the body?
Within the past 30 years, it has been observed that female athletes suffered a significantly greater number of injuries than male athletes (2). Research suggests that the increase and decrease of hormones that women experience each month may contribute to the functionality of certain tissues, making them more apt to injury (4).
Elevated estrogen levels have been linked to a higher risk of injury for women at certain points of their cycle, which suggests that hormones do in fact influence muscle activity and movement during exercise (4). Add an increased risk of injury into the mix of fatigue, irritability, cramps, and other common premenstrual symptoms and the need for an exercise regimen oriented around changing hormone levels becomes visible.
A big advocate for cycle syncing is Alisa Vitti, an expert in women’s hormone health and creator of the Flo menstrual tracking app. She coaches women through diet and exercise based on a women’s 28-day hormonal cycle as opposed to the 24-hour male hormonal cycle that forms the basis for a majority of fitness and health plans.
An admirable quality of cycle syncing is that it is not a weight loss promotion scheme, but instead a way to lean towards intuitive exercise and injury prevention. This could also be helpful for women who struggle with exercise induced amenorrhea.
What are the 4 phases of a menstrual cycle, and how do I exercise to accommodate them?
- Menstrual Phase (4)
The menstrual phase occurs on the first day of a period when bleeding begins and can last 3-7 days. In this phase, a hormone known as follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) triggers the ovaries to prepare to release an egg. FSH levels are elevated at this point in the cycle, while other hormones, like estrogen, remain low. Typically, women experience fatigue, cramps, and other unpleasant symptoms during the menstrual phase that discourage activity.
The menstrual phase is often the phase where women experience low energy levels, which should be taken into account when thinking about exercising. It is recommended to stay in tune to what your body is telling you at all points of the menstrual cycle, but especially when your energy levels are down. If your body needs rest, give it rest!
If you are feeling fatigued, shoot for low intensity workouts like yoga, pilates, and walking.
On the other hand, if you feel up for a more intense workout, utilize those low estrogen levels. Low estrogen levels means that you are at a lower risk of injury, so definitely take advantage of this and get sweaty!
- Follicular Phase (4)
The follicular phase begins when bleeding subsides, usually lasting 7-10 days. Hormones begin to elevate at this point. FSH levels continue to increase to mature the egg. Estrogen levels follow a similar trend by peaking and then dropping after ovulation. This raise in hormone levels has been shown to affect creativity, which is an excellent excuse to experiment with new forms of exercise while being mindful that high estrogen levels can cause an increased risk of injury.
Warm ups and activation exercises are important always, but especially so during the follicular phase. Typically, energy levels seem to restore themselves around this time, so it is recommended to exercise according to the body’s needs while being mindful of the increased risk of injury.
- Ovulation Phase (4)
The ovulation phase lasts around 3-5 days. During this time, hormone levels peak. When estrogen, FSH, and luteinizing hormone (LH) are at their highest, so are energy levels. Women usually report feeling the most energized at this point in their cycle, which is the perfect opportunity to incorporate high intensity or cardio exercises.
The peak in hormone levels affects more than just your energy levels. High levels of these hormones can also influence and escalate social skills, which makes group classes fitting for this phase. High intensity interval training, crossfit, spin classes, dance or barre classes, or hot yoga classes are excellent examples of exercises to do while in the ovulation phase.
- Luteal Phase (4)
The luteal phase is usually the last 10-14 days of the menstrual cycle. There is a drop in hormone levels after ovulation, but these levels are later restored along with progesterone. Estrogen and progesterone are at their highest in the middle of this phase, and later drop down. The various hormonal ups and downs experienced in this phase can cause women to have feelings of low energy, especially in the later stages. Basal energy expenditure and energy intake has been observed to be heightened during this time, which may account for PMS cravings.
In the first part of the luteal phase, utilize your high energy levels by continuing similar high intensity, sweaty exercises as recommended for the ovulation phase. When you feel your energy begin to dip in the later part of the luteal phase, resort to lighter exercise, like walking and yoga.
Edited by PreRD intern, Lauren Gatto