Dr Charlotte Hay
Why You're Exercising Wrong
If you’re not familiar with cycle-syncing, check out this article first.
'Cycle-syncing' means planning our lives in accordance with our feminine cycles; in other words, doing certain activities and eating certain foods at phase-specific times throughout our feminine cycle, in order to support the natural rise and fall of our hormones.
We can cycle-sync different areas of our lives, including our diet, work lives, and more, but today I want to focus on exercise, and how we can cycle-sync our movement in order to better support our hormones.
This is important because nowadays we often feel that we need to train hard, to push ourselves to the limit, and that only a super sweaty, high intensity workout counts... but the truth is that this may actually be counterproductive to our hormonal health. This is partly because most of the research touting the benefits of such high intensity exercise has been conducted only on men and post-menopausal women, not on women who have a cycle (generally 18-45 year olds). There are numerous reasons for this that I won’t go into here, but it’s worth bearing in mind whenever you hear that some new trend is good for your health... ask the question, was this studied in relation to menstruating women, specifically?
So what’s the problem with doing the same workouts each week?
As cyclical beings, women’s hormones change throughout the month, and this includes ‘stress’ hormones such as cortisol. Cortisol tends to be higher in the 2nd half of our cycle (luteal and menstrual phases). And exercise acts as a stressor on the body. While some stress can be good (and healthy) for us, the problem is that, if your cortisol is already naturally high in the 2nd half of your cycle, you don’t want to be adding more stress through intense exercise. This elevated cortisol would actually push your body into fat storage mode (as opposed to burning fat, which we want) because cortisol communicates to your body that you are in some kind of natural disaster such as a famine or war, in which case your body will store fat in order to protect you (from the famine it thinks is coming). Because it thinks your life is in danger, your body will also prioritise making more cortisol (to protect you), over making sex hormones such as progesterone (it would not want you to bring a child into a world of famine/war anyway!). This means that instead of progesterone being high in the first half of luteal phase, and then tapering off towards the end of your cycle, as it should do, there will not be enough progesterone in the first place (which is a problem if you want to get pregnant, or plan to get pregnant, in the future, as progesterone’s job is to help maintain a pregnancy). This can lead to (amongst other things): sleep disturbances (waking up at 2am), mood issues, anxieties, hot flashes, and brown discharge.
So what can you do?
Cycle-syncing your exercise helps to combat such issues, and helps balance your hormones naturally. This means you would save your intense workouts for the first half of the cycle, and stick to gentle forms of movement in the 2nd half of your cycle (especially during menstruation). Here's a more detailed breakdown of each phase, and phase-appropriate forms of exercise.
Phase 1: Follicular
Days: 1-10 after your bleed (depending on the length of your cycle)
What your hormones are doing: All hormones are slowly rising
Associated season: Spring
Best kind of exercise: Cardio or anything new
Follicular phase is like your inner spring, so it’s a great time to try new things, including a new hobby or movement class you’ve never tried before (think aerial yoga, pole dancing – something fun and exciting!). Take it easy the first few days after your period has finished, as your energy will be slowly rising, so something like Vinyasa yoga would be a great option. Towards the middle and end of follicular phase you may find you have more energy so cardio (dancing, running, etc.) would be great during this time.
Phase 2: Ovulatory
Days: 11-13 (approx.)
What your hormones are doing: Oestrogen peaks, as does LH
Associated season: Summer
Best kind of exercise: HIIT
As your internal summer, ovulation is when you will probably have the most energy out of the month and be more motivated to exercise, especially outdoors. Now is a good time to do that high intensity interval training or other intense movement. You’ll also tend to be more social during ovulation so this might be a good time to try group sports or anything involving a team.
Phase 3: Luteal
Days: 14-26 (approx.)
What your hormones are doing: Progesterone peaks in first half of this phase, then declines (if not pregnant). Oestrogen starts to fall, has a 2nd peak, and then declines.
Associated season: Autumn
Best kind of exercise: Slow but steady exercise like Pilates
Autumn is traditionally a time to ‘get things done’ before the hibernation of winter, so you might find you are more able to focus and be productive during luteal phase. This translates well into something like Pilates or Ashtanga-Vinyasa yoga, which is fairly slow-paced but intense. Towards the 2nd half of this phase, start to dial down the intensity, especially if you suffer from menstrual cramps or severe PMS.
Phase 4: Menstrual
Days: 27-32 (approx. - depending on your cycle)
What your hormones are doing: All hormones are low
Associated season: Winter
Best kind of exercise: Gentle, if any
Winter is a time for rest and reflection, so allow yourself to rest during your bleed, especially if you feel stressed or overwhelmed. If you crave movement then gentle exercise such as walking, yin yoga or restorative yoga are great options for this phase.
If you’re interested in my ‘yoga for your cycle’ series, sign up to my newsletter to be the first to hear when it’s released!
If you've been struggling to lose weight despite exercising a lot, or are suffering from any kind of hormonal imbalance, try cycle-syncing your exercise for the next 3 cycles and notice if there are any changes in your body or mind. Let me know how you get on in the comments below!
If you’d like more help with cycle-syncing, weight loss, or hormone imbalance symptoms, book in for a free consultation with me here.