Regular physical activity is one of the best things you can do for your health. It can help lower the risk of many diseases that affect women, including heart disease and stroke. Exercise can also help to relieve symptoms of some conditions such as depression, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. To gain the most benefits from your exercise, such as maintaining a healthy weight and building strength and endurance, it’s necessary to include a range of physical activities.
Let's explore some of the most common questions surrounding women’s health and exercise, and physical activity and the menstrual cycle.
Can I still exercise as I age?
Physical activity can help with your health as you get older, in fact, it's one of the best things you can do to prevent age-related issues. Regular exercise can help:
Keep your bones strong and decrease your risks of developing osteoporosis (a health condition that weakens bones, making them fragile and more likely to break)
Prevent hip fractures
Decrease pain from arthritis
Can help prevent dementia
Exercising as you age
This comes down to the individual – whether you have always been active, any injuries you may have suffered in the past, medical conditions etc. If you are just starting, the best thing you can do is take a visit to see your GP so that they can confirm you are fit and well to exercise. If all is well, you could try activities such as:
Swimming – low impact so no stress on the joints and bones, but you still get a great cardiovascular workout and your muscles working against the water provide resistance meaning strength training benefits also.
Walking – safe and effective, fresh air and enjoying nature whilst working all your muscles and heart.
Gym training – book yourself an induction to do with a qualified gym instructor to ensure you know how to use all the equipment safely an effectively. Strength training is vital as we age to prevent muscle and bone decline.
Exercise class – quite often classes are run that have been designed for the older person so it is suitable for your requirements. Falls prevention classes are popular and are often run by local council gyms or private health centres.
How much exercise should I do?
Regular exercise can provide a whole host of health benefits and can even help to extend your lifespan and the number of years that you live in good health.
The government suggests:
2 hours and 30 minutes (150 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity. You know you are doing a moderate-intensity activity when your heart is beating faster but you can still carry on a conversation. Try a brisk, 30-minute walk five times a week.
1 hour and 15 minutes (75 minutes) of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. You know you are doing a vigorous-intensity physical activity when you are breathing hard and it is difficult to have a conversation. This could be a 40-minute jog or step class twice a week.
Muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days
It’s important for women to include two muscle-strengthening activities to keep their bones and muscles strong.
Will I bulk up doing strength training?
No – many women unnecessarily avoid lifting weights as they are worried it will make them ‘bulky’. This is simply not the case. Women’s bodies are different to men’s, women naturally have more body fat and less muscle than men - we have lower levels of testosterone (which helps build muscle mass) so unless you are a professional bodybuilder or athlete, you won't become ‘bulky’ or ‘too muscular’. It's very healthy for women to do weight training and will enable us to feel and look better with our bodies as it helps to ‘sculpt’ the body.
Physical activity and weight
Everyone is different, how quickly you burn calories when you are physically active can be very different to other people, based on your past, genes and biology, and your size and gender. Also, you will burn a different amount of calories depending on what type of exercise you are doing, for example, a long run at a moderate pace will burn more calories than a slow walk.
If weight loss is your goal, you need to be in a calorie deficit. Meaning you need to burn more calories than you are consuming. To work this out, tracking your food intake every day will help you to understand how many calories you're eating and how much physical activity to do to burn off.
Exercise and your menstrual cycle
Do my energy levels change during my period?
It might. Some women report low energy levels just before or during their period, while other women have more energy than usual during this time. Changing hormone levels through the menstrual cycle may be the cause.
Week 1: On the first day of your period, oestrogen and progesterone levels are at their lowest. But they begin a gradual rise during your period. It may be easier to get active than in the previous weeks.
Week 2: In the week after your period ends, your energy levels might begin to go up. Oestrogen levels begin rising quickly in preparation for ovulation (releasing an egg from the ovary).
Week 3: Oestrogen levels peak around the time of ovulation, about two weeks before the next period for most women. When oestrogen levels fall quickly after ovulation and progesterone levels begin rising, you may feel more tired or sluggish than usual. This does not mean that you should not exercise. Being active might help boost your mood and give you more energy. Try exercising first thing in the morning, before your energy level goes down as the day goes on.
Week 4: In the week before your next period, you may feel less energy as both oestrogen and progesterone levels are falling (if you are not pregnant). Physical activity may help premenstrual symptoms (PMS) get better even if your energy levels are low.
Try keeping a fitness journal to track your menstrual cycle and your energy levels during each workout. After a few months, you should be able to see when you have more or less energy during your cycle.
If you take hormonal birth control, like the pill, patch, shot, or vaginal ring, your energy levels may still go up and down with your cycle, but the differences may not be as noticeable.
Does it affect my ability to exercise?
No – there has been no research to indicate this. The only slight difference could be your energy levels as described above, however, if you are feeling low in energy just before and during your period, try just decreasing the intensity of the exercise, such as a walk outside.
Interestingly, some researchers have found that the follicular phase (days 1-14 of the cycle), resulted in a higher increase in muscle strength compared to the luteal phase (days 15-28 of the cycle). Therefore, if you start to pay attention to your cycle phases, you may find out that your strength training pays off the most in your follicular phase.
Can exercise help menstrual cramps?
If you experience painful periods, called dysmenorrhoea, you know too well how uncomfortable this can be. The good news is, exercise such as light walking, can help to decrease these symptoms. So, although you may not feel like it at the time, by heading out for a walk, you should feel a relief in your symptoms.
What if I work out a lot and don’t get my period?
Exercising too much can cause missed menstrual periods or make your periods stop entirely. Irregular or missed periods are more common in athletes and other women who train hard regularly. But if you haven’t worked out in a long time and suddenly start a vigorous fitness routine, your period could stop or become irregular.
Talk to your doctor or nurse if you have irregular or missed periods. A regular period is a sign of good health. These period problems can lead to more serious health problems, including problems getting pregnant and loss of bone density.