EXERCISING HEALTHY HORMONES FOR WOMEN
Cravings, mood swings, hot flushes, fluid retention, and inflammation… we don’t need to see them to know the effects our hormones can have on our health. Our diet, environment, stress levels, quality of sleep, nutritional and product choices, medications, exercise choice and intensity, can all affect the sensitive balance of our hormones. What many women aren’t aware of are some of the simple lifestyle choices they can make to have some ‘say’ in the way their hormones make them feel. As a young teenager, I wish I had have known some of the information I am passing onto you now! It’s never too late though to start making some changes to support your hormone health.
exercising to your cycle
Learning to ‘train to your cycle’ can improve your strength, recovery and ability to reach your goals by knowing the times that your training type, intensity and volume should be modified. Over a woman’s average 28-35 day cycle there are 3 main phases, the Follicular Phase, The Luteal Phase and The Menstrual Phase. During each stage the changes in estrogen and progesterone naturally fluctuate, allowing for a window of opportunity to appropriately modify training variables.
Save the PBs (Personal Bests) for the Follicular Phase!
It is during the first phase, the Follicular Phase, that estrogen levels are at their highest in a woman’s cycle. Women can really capitalise on this by making this the time in their training program where intensity is at its highest. If for example, a woman has a strength training routine, this would be the ideal time for increasing weights, sets or reps, depending on their training goals. If their program is more cardio focused, they can also modify the time, distance, and exercise type, to work with the increased energy and strength they may be experiencing. For example, if training for a long distance running event, your goals may be to decrease your per kilometre time, or to increase the total number of kilometres covered in general without stopping. A general statement would be that this is the phase you want to be working at your Personal Best, whether that be through strength, duration, speed, or overall performance.
Moderate Intensity during the Luteal Phase
During the Luteal Phase, energy, mood and pre-menstrual symptoms can kick in as estrogen levels fluctuate between an initial drop followed by a rise closer to your period. Progesterone also rises to build the uterine lining in preparation for a fertilised egg to be implanted in the uterus. As progesterone rises, so to does the basal body temperature. Your body is preparing itself for the possibility of a pregnancy - pretty amazing right! This phase can last for up to ten days. This is the stage in your cycle where you should be transitioning from the higher intensity of the Follicular Phase to a more moderate intensity. It is important to pay attention to the subtle signs your body may be giving you and using them as prescription tools for your training. For example, if you are feeling lower in energy, this could be a good opportunity to enter a de-load phase by reducing your weights and overall program load (reps, sets, and total duration of workout). Circuit and metabolic training are good options during this time as they generally include a combination of resistance and cardio.
In the Luteal Phase, your body may not recover as quickly from your training sessions, so supporting it with magnesium and an adequate amount of protein in your diet can help reduce the symptoms you may experience. Some self care strategies like taking a magnesium and Epsom salts bath can also support the bodies recovery. What moderate intensity looks like will vary from person to person, so keeping a diary of your daily workouts can be beneficial in accurately modifying your training variables in alignment with your cycle. You will be able to clearly see then when your energy and strength are at their highest and lowest and be able to use this to significantly improve your training results.
Slow it down during the Menstrual Phase
The type and degree of symptoms women experience during menstruation varies. Cramps, bloating, nausea, low energy and changes in emotional state are some of the common ones during this week. How you adjust your training requires an honest check-in with your body. A couple of days of rest or lighter intensity can really work to support the body and the bigger picture of your overall program. Consider using LISS (Light Intensity Steady State) cardio exercises such as walking, swimming, cycling, rowing or any cardio equipment where you are working at a steady state with minimal resistance. Reduce your weights and volume in your resistance programming and use the opportunity to work on your mobility so that when your strength is at its peak, your range of motion (ROM) is complimenting that and allowing for optimal muscle engagement. I enjoy the work of movement founder Ido Portal. Simple exercises like hanging can have a profound impact on improving whole body mobility and reducing injury. Check out the link to learn more about hanging and other mobility exercises that are fantastic for a well rounded and functional body!
Do you stop training during your menstrual cycle? Again, this is a personal check-in response, however, I choose to always do something, mostly for the effects that moving has on my emotional state. This can be a sensitive few days, so I choose to support my emotional health by continuing to move my body, even if it is at a lower intensity. I also like getting outside and topping up my Vitamin D levels. Nature and sunshine always have a direct response on my ‘feel good’ hormones.
Sitting next to stress management, our diet is the most underestimated preventional tool we have in regards to any health issues, especially our hormones. The increase in processed foods, artificial ingredients, exposure to plastics, use of pesticides and other chemicals on our food, antibiotics fed to our animals (and then to us), combined with the decrease in nutrient rich soil to grow our food in, has all contributed to a huge increase in hormone related health problems. You only have to look at the most recent statistics on couples infertility rates, which have scarily increased to a one in four ratio according to the World Health Organisation.
Women also need to make sure they are eating enough to keep at a healthy body fat ratio. Paul Chek, holistic health specialist and CHEK Institute founder, suggests that for optimal hormonal function, women should be no lower than 13% body fat. This is a challenging fact to get across to women in a culture that is constantly challenging a healthy body image by pushing the latest diet or weight loss trend. Something that would benefit all women is a change in mindset from eating for body size and shape to eating for whole body nourishment. Food is not just a weight loss tool. I highly recommend checking out Naturopathic doctor, Lara Briden’s website and blog, where you will find some specifics on diet and hormonal health. She is often referred to as the ‘Period Revolutionary’ for her natural approach to treating the no-so-pleasant symptoms of out of balance hormones.
I would suggest considering the very basics of eating for hormonal health using the JERF (Just Eat Real Food) principle. This means sticking to a mostly wholefood diet, reducing refined and processed foods, limiting sugar intake, and where possible sourcing nutrient rich organic fruits and vegetables and organic or grass fed and finished meats. As a starting point, this could significantly reduce your exposure to the toxins messing with your hormones. Rather than feeling overwhelmed with a need to change your whole pantry and fridge now, why not start with the ‘dirty dozen’ - click on this link for a list of the top 12 fruits and vegetables containing the most pesticide residue. Making these your priority organic or spray free purchases will help you make sure that you’re spending the extra money on organic produce where it counts.
Your diet should also be something you monitor with your training over the course of your cycle. Adjusting your macro nutrients to suit your training and energy needs will not only improve your results, but keep your hormones happy.
It’s difficult to escape the amount of toxins we are exposed to on a daily basis. Before women walk out the front door, they have probably already come into contact with more than 100 toxic chemicals. Makeup, perfume, deodorant, hairspray, shampoo/conditioner, moisturiser, body wash, plastics, home cleaning products…the list goes on with products that have scarily been accepted as a ‘normal’ part of an everyday household and a woman’s daily routine. The beauty industry have a lot to answer for! Not only do they put their ‘must have’ products in and sometimes on our faces all day, they are also not telling us what is really in that long list of ingredients on the back and what those words mean in relation to our health. Check out The Toxin Free Tribe website for some more information and ideas on how to reduce your exposure to toxins in beauty products and around the home, beginning with the top 10 ingredients to avoid.
The effects of quality sleep go way beyond the energy and focus we need to get us through the day. Lack of sleep can cause metabolic disorders, hormonal imbalance, weight gain, insulin resistance, mood disorders and increased risk of cardiovascular disease to name a few not so pleasant side effects to minimal Z’s. Hormonally, poor sleep largely affects your endocrine system, responsible for the control and secretion of many essential female hormones. The down side to this is that it can start a vicious merry-go-round, where by the lack of sleep throws the hormones out of balance and the out of balance hormones make it hard to get to sleep (*insert face palm). In relation to training, Human Growth Hormone is an example of a hormone that can dramatically affect your training ability and results. It is essential for repair and recovery of muscle post training and for the energy you will need to back it up the next day. 7-8 hours of sleep is suggested as the optimal amount for fat loss or muscle gain. From this perspective, sleep is actually a vital part OF your program. It should not be considered as a separate component when considering your desired results. Sleep is the finisher to your program that makes all the difference!
USING CYCLE AWARENESS TO YOUR ADVANTAGE
Having an awareness of what stage you are at in your cycle will not only assist your training, but also your lifestyle. More than anything, it’s about becoming in-tune with your body and intuitively knowing how to modify your training, diet and self care practices to support your physical and emotional health. Your friends and family will thank you for it too!
There are apps now that allow you to easily track what phase you are at within your cycle, as well as log important information to help you become more self aware in relation to your moods, cravings, symptoms, etc. I personally use the app ‘Flo’ which has been fantastic for getting me in tune with my body signals. I know approaching my period to use the opportunity to de-load in training, which benefits me in the long run anyway with increased strength, stamina and energy to perform at the intensity level I am capable of. When you consider that your hormones control your mood, weight, sleep, strength, energy and overall picture of health, it's pretty clear that some awareness and proactive steps in supporting them will filter through to positively impact all areas of wellbeing.