Many women swear by the fact that exercise can help alleviate period cramps. But does this anecdotal advice really have any credibility? The good news is: Yes, working out really can help alleviate cramps during your time of the month.
What’s more the relief can be quite immediate. Plus, we’re not talking about an extreme workout. Some gentle exercise, like a walk or stretching, can deliver powerful results.
Still, when you’re cramping it can be hard to motivate yourself to work out. After all, you’re in pain—sometimes quite severe pain. And the last thing you might want to do is get up and go outside for a stroll, even a gentle one.
We’ll walk you through the science (why it works) and some pro-tips to help self-motivate or manage discomfort when you’re experiencing those period pains.
Fundamentals of Cramping During Your Menstrual Cycle
For most women, cramping usually occurs on the first day of menstruation and peaks on the second day of their menstrual cycle. Cramping can be felt all over the body, not just the abdomen. Areas you might feel cramps include:
- The abdomen (especially lower)
- The lower back
The severity of cramping can vary woman to woman, and even period to period. Some cramps are mild. Others are severe. The nature of the pain can be dull or sharp, continuous or intermittent. Which is all to say: It’s really different for everybody.
Menstrual cramps are caused by the chemical messengers that trigger contractions when your period is beginning.
And although cramping can be part of having a painful period (dysmenorrhea) there can be other causes of pain besides cramping. They might also be symptoms of:
- Fibroids and cysts
- Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID)
- Endometriosis, and more...
These will likely be accompanied by other symptoms too.If period pain is caused by other factors, exercise may not offer relief. But if cramping is the problem, exercise usually offers some respite.
Why Exercise Helps
When you work out you release endorphin. Endorphin (or endogenous morphine) is a natural version of the opiate pain reliever morphine.
A surge of endorphin increases your pain threshold. It also elevates your mood and promotes a sense of wellbeing.
This is exactly the same reaction that causes runners to become addicted to running - they experience what’s called “runner’s high”. But you don’t need to run a marathon, or even 5k to experience the effects of endorphin. Even gentle aerobic exercise will cause a release of endorphin.
Generally, our advice is to stay within your normal exercise routine and listen to yourself. This isn’t a time to try a new regime, break-in brand new running shoes or embark on new weight loss goals. Instead, focus on motivating yourself to do enough to offer you relief from cramping.
What Kind of Exercise is Best for Menstrual Cramps
In many ways, the best kind of workout for period cramps is the kind that you actually feel like doing. This is not a normal day and don’t beat yourself up that you’re not pumped to go all-in. Instead, reflect on what feels right and would be comfortable for you. Again, remember the goal isn’t necessarily maximum fitness at this time, but pain relief.
But for most of us, it’s probably great to stay with a light workout that gets your heart rate going a little (enough that you’re not to breathless to maintain a conversation):
- Walking: Walking is a pretty powerful workout. This aerobic exercise offers low impact but can be a full body workout (especially if you get those arms moving). Plus, it’s free to go for a walk! And you can enjoy some time in nature while doing it, which will also lift your mood.
- Home workouts: Not really up for spandex and gyms? A little light stretching at home can provide a lot of benefits.
- Swimming: Swimming is another gentle workout that offers a full physical workout with light resistance. Now, we get it: You may feel insecure about leaks or just not in the mood to don a swimsuit… But if you do, this is a great exercise choice.
- Low Volume Strength Training: Maybe save the powerlifting for another day. But some low volume strength training combined with gentle cardio is a great combination.
- Yoga and Pilates: Yoga and/or pilates are great for stretching and helping with back pain. They also promote calm meditation which may help with stress levels and mood.
If you’re exercising on your period and experience any discomfort or dizziness, stop. Take a moment and just be mindful before you decide whether to continue. Be gentle on yourself and give yourself permission to take it easy if that’s what your body is asking for.
Struggling to Motivate Yourself? Some Tips
As we mentioned at the beginning, it can be hard to motivate yourself to get up and about when you’re experiencing severe cramping.
Think about what soothing measures you can take to reduce soreness so that you might be able to move about a bit. These might include:
Heating Pads or a Warm Bath
A little heat can offer relief from cramping so that you might feel able to get moving a little bit more afterwards. We really want to discourage you getting into too aggressive a “push past the pain” mindset.
Instead, take some time and see if a warm bath or heating pad can help soothe the soreness. Then consider a short, gentle walk. Set modest goals and then extend them if you feel fine. But don’t push yourself too hard.
Over-the-Counter Pain Relief
If you’re thrown off your normal exercise regime due to period pain, consider some over-the-counter relief for your symptoms, like ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
Because exercise will also help with your pain levels, it will benefit you to exercise. And if a little relief helps you get going, that may remove one annoying obstacle.
If you’re new to meditation this maybe won’t offer the most immediate relief. But practicing meditation offers support to many people who experience chronic pain. There are different meditations and visualizations for addressing discomfort.
Explore apps like Headspace and Calm to see if there’s a fit for you. Bonus: Meditation is more broadly beneficial for mental wellbeing, stress and mindfulness!
Resting When You Need
High performing, professional athletes may get through their period days without compromising on their workout. But for the rest of us, it’s okay to take it a little easy.
Don’t punish yourself if you’re not performing at the same level or breaking all your personal records. Instead, give yourself credit for any effort you make and accept if you can’t do that either.
Always Listen to Your Body
We recommend staying within your normal exercise regime while you’re on your period. This isn’t a time to try to take your performance to the next level or start a brand new workout.
If your daily exercise is a walk to work, keep doing it. But if your body is used to weight training and cardio, you can do those things too. Ultimately, listen to your own body. You might want to take a break and that’s okay too.
But it’s worth knowing that while your brain might be saying “Netflix and chill” your body might actually benefit from a little gentle movement.
Whenever you work out - either during that time of the month or not - also exercise some common sense. You know what your own body is used to and how it normally performs, what feels normal and what feels like you’re pushing yourself too far. Remember: The goal is to feel better.
Start gentle, stay hydrated and give yourself permission to take it easy or stop altogether if you’re not feeling it.