Exercise science is just beginning to understand how women’s hormonal shifts affect their muscles, joints, and ligaments. Female soccer and basketball players suffer anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries 2.78 and 3.6 times more often than their male counterparts, and the presence of estrogen and progesterone receptors in bones, skeletal muscles, and ligaments suggests that hormonal fluctuations may affect how these tissues function.1,2 High estrogen levels have been linked to more pliable hamstring muscles, and may make women more vulnerable to knee injuries at certain points in the menstrual cycle3 (referred to as “cycle” throughout this blog post).
Women who cycle know that fluctuating hormones affect much more than their muscles and joints: mood, brain function, and energy levels are profoundly affected, as well. The concept of “cycle syncing” has been popularized by women’s health expert Alisa Vitti, whose Flo Living program and smartphone app guide women through each of the 4 phases of their menstrual cycle with detailed suggestions for aligning their daily activities with the hormonal shifts happening in each phase.
If you’re a woman who cycles regularly, the idea of cycle syncing may help you leverage the unique hormonal benefits of each phase of your menstrual cycle, allowing you to choose activities that are best suited to the energy levels and hormonal milieu of each phase. Pairing this with a little bit of knowledge from the world of exercise science might help you avoid fitness-related injuries, as well.
Curious about what this might look like for you or a partner? Read on to learn about each phase of the menstrual cycle, and what to think about when you’re choosing how to exercise.
The menstrual cycle begins with the first day of bleeding. During the menstrual phase, a slight rise in follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) stimulates your ovaries to start preparing an egg (technically, menstruation is the very first part of the follicular phase). Other hormones – luteinizing hormone (LH), progesterone, and estrogen – are at their lowest levels at this time of the month, and many women find that their energy levels are lowest at this point in their cycle, as well.
Because your energy level may be lower while you are bleeding, this is an especially important time to listen to your body and figure out what works best for you. If you’re feeling tired, listen to your body and take the rest you need by turning to activities like restorative yoga, yin yoga, and gentle walking – your energy levels will begin to return soon. But if you have the energy for more intense activities, don’t hold back: your lower estrogen levels during this phase may mean that you’re less prone to injuries right now.
After menstrual bleeding is complete, your hormone levels begin to rise. FSH levels continue to gradually rise to help an egg mature in the ovary, and then drop shortly before ovulation. Estrogen levels also gradually rise, beginning to peak towards the end of this phase just before the next egg begins its journey down the fallopian tube. High estrogen levels have been linked to both a reduced muscle stretch reflex and more pliable hamstring muscles: more pliable muscles may make women more vulnerable to knee injuries, as the muscles absorb less force from the joints.2
The effect of rising hormone levels on the brain is an increase in creativity and openness to new experiences. This is a great time to try new physical activities to mix up your usual routine, and help you find new movement that you enjoy: try dance classes, new cardio routines, or other forms of creative movement. As always, listen to your body and be aware of the potential for increased risk of injury during this phase of your cycle: warming up properly before exercise and backing off from movements that bother your joints will keep you moving pain-free.
Estrogen, FSH, and LH levels all peak during the ovulation phase. Estrogen helps to thicken the uterine lining, FSH helps eggs mature in the ovary, and LH stimulates the follicle in the ovary to release an egg. Peak hormone levels correspond with peak energy levels – many women feel vibrant and magnetic during this phase of their cycle.
Take advantage of your high energy levels during this phase and choose exercises that make you break a sweat! If you enjoy exercising with others, this is an ideal phase to participate in group fitness classes – your hormone levels just before, during, and just after ovulation support the functioning of the verbal and social centers of your brain, making you a sociable, engaging conversation partner. High intensity interval training (HIIT), spin classes, jog/walk intervals, or vigorous yoga classes are all great choices during the ovulation phase. As with the tail end of the follicular phase, be aware that higher estrogen levels may make you slightly more prone to knee injuries: listen to your body, warm up properly before movement, and pay attention to any new or nagging pains to avoid getting hurt while you’re ramping up the intensity of your activity.
During the luteal phase of your cycle, estrogen levels dip after ovulation, but begin to rise again shortly afterwards, and progesterone steadily increases, as well. Estrogen and progesterone reach their luteal phase peak in the middle of this phase, and then dip again as you move towards the end of your cycle. The hormonal ups and downs of this part of the cycle make many women feel sluggish. Research suggests that women’s basal energy expenditure may be higher during the luteal phase, which may account for the food cravings that many women experience as part of PMS (women’s energy intake tends to be higher during this part of the menstrual cycle as well).4
You’ll likely have more energy in the first part of your luteal phase with higher estrogen and progesterone levels: choose higher-intensity activities during this part of the phase, such as weight training, running, or vigorous yoga, and give yourself permission to ease back to lighter activities (walking, gentle yoga, dance classes) as your hormone levels drop again.
The bottom line for any part of your cycle is to listen to your body whenever you’re participating in physical activity, and as your hormones shift, pay attention to patterns that might clue you in to movement choices that are right for you. Happy exercising!
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