Your Period Affects How You Move Constantly – Not Just Once A Month

Many people have a very rudimentary understanding of the menstrual cycle: you will bleed once a month, maybe experience pain, bloat or depressive impulses in the run-up, and at some point in between one bleed and the next you will ovulate. But the fact is that the menstrual cycle’s impact isn’t confined to your pre-menstruation or your period. It is something that is happening to us constantly. 
Each phase, every part of that cycle, has a physiological and psychological impact which can shape how often and in what way you should be moving your body.
The cycle is made up of key phases: the period and the follicular phase (the first half), the ovulation phase (the interlude), and the luteal phase and the premenstrual phase (the second half). Each phase plays a different role in readying your body for conception and there is constant interaction between the pituitary gland in your brain and your ovaries throughout. First, the pituitary gland releases a hormone that stimulates the ovaries to produce oestrogen; later in the cycle, another hormone stimulates releasing higher levels of progesterone. These hormones, oestrogen and progesterone, are in delicate balance and define the parameters of the key phases in your cycle.
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Dr Emma Ross is a female health specialist and physiologist at Jennis, a workout app with specialist programmes for pregnancy, postnatal and general training. She says that while there is general knowledge of periods and the existence of hormones, "the important thing that we don't necessarily tune into is how our hormones fluctuate." Over the course of a typical cycle, you can go from both oestrogen and progesterone being very low during your period to oestrogen peaking in your follicular phase before both hormones are elevated in the luteal phase, then drop off at the end. That fluctuation affects our ability to reproduce and either get pregnant or have a period, but it is far from the only thing it affects. "Our body has receptors for those hormones, all across our physiology: in our muscles, in our heart, in our bone, in our brain, in our gut. So when those hormones are high or low, they're going to affect loads of different physiological systems and they can affect metabolism, or they might affect mood, which might affect energy levels."
The science around hormones and sport is still, in many ways, in its infancy. The majority of sports science, as with everything else, is built for studying and priming the bodies of people who do not menstruate. "The one thing about the research gap with menstrual cycles is that for a long time, the research that has been done in that space has been of poor quality," Dr Ross tells R29, citing an analysis from last year which found that only 8% of the research done was credible enough to stand up to scrutiny. "We've got to close the research gap but we've also got to improve the quality of the research to be able to really understand what we know about the body."
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Our body has receptors for hormones all across our physiology: in our muscles, in our heart, in our bone, in our brain, in our gut. So when those hormones are high or low, they're going to affect loads of different physiological systems, metabolism or mood, which might affect energy levels.

Dr Emma Ross
This means that, so far, the limited credible research we do have is being primarily focused on by those in the elite sports world, where a tiny incremental change can be the difference between winning and losing. This is how Olympic gold medallist and founder of Jennis, Jessica Ennis-Hill, first came to learn about the impact of hormonal cycles on sport and performance.
"My in-depth relationship with my hormones came when I was pregnant during my career and then came back to competing," Jessica tells R29. "That was a massive eye-opener for me as to how, firstly, your hormones affect you in relationship to your ligaments, your muscles, everything! I had no idea how powerful it could be." While the hormone cycles at play in pregnancy are massively different from those in a typical menstrual cycle, it showed her that this key area was being overlooked – even within elite sport at the time. "It is being spoken about more and there's more emphasis and research being done to understand the relationship between your menstrual cycle and athletes in different sports. But I think within the general public, a lot of people don't perhaps understand the stages, the terminology behind it and it can often be quite confusing. In that sense, people just think they'll leave it and carry on with what they're doing. When actually there's a massive benefit to be had to understanding what’s going on." And so as part of Jennis, Dr Ross and Jessica have developed the CycleMapping programme, which aims to help you learn to move with – and not fight against – your body.
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Courtesy of Jennis.
CycleMapping functions through a curated set of workout suggestions. Each category is for a different phase in your cycle, and each of those phases is made clear through quick explainers. In each category there are workouts tailored to accommodate the moods, energy levels and physical sensations typical to that phase in the cycle.
Instead of a strict schedule of workouts, there are suggestions and outlines of what a workout could look like depending on how you, the user, experience your menstrual cycle. During the follicular phase, when oestrogen is particularly high, you are likely to be at your most motivated and energetic. Consequently, you’ll be recommended two days of intense workouts and one day off to make the most of that energy for the time it lasts. This has the double benefit of not only utilising your energy but actually helping you recover better and build more lean muscle. "There's enough evidence — albeit from a small body of research — that oestrogen creates this anabolic environment, which means it helps the body build and repair muscle," says Dr Ross.
The programme works well, generously accommodating the emotional and physiological shifts that happen over a course of a cycle and which, as a first-time user, you may not have even linked to your cycle. On days in the follicular phase, the HIIT workouts offered are satisfyingly intense to make the most of that promised energy, while the lower intensity, steady state offerings during the luteal phase keep you motivated to move without pushing you to unnecessary exhaustion. During the premenstrual and period phases, there are offerings to allow for any potential symptom, be it anger, anxiety, bloat or pain. The workouts are offered at three levels too, so whether you’re a beginner when it comes to training or consider yourself advanced, there is something to challenge you without pushing beyond your limits.
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Courtesy of Jennis.
The programme’s language is careful to demonstrate that there is no template for a menstrual cycle as everyone experiences theirs differently – from how sensitive you are genetically to the influence of hormones, to how many hormones you produce, to the impact of lifestyle, diet and exercise. This means that the app currently works best for those who have a 'typical' cycle (one which regularly restarts every 28 to 35 days) and don't use hormonal contraception. It can still be useful for those who fall outside those parameters, though, providing a wealth of workout options for a range of symptoms and moods. 
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Dr Ross hopes that programmes like Cyclemapping could offer more insight into this burgeoning area of research. "How women select their workouts and whether they take what was offered in their template gives us lots of insight into women's cycle[s]… Does restorative yoga actually help when you're feeling lethargic? Does this type of movement tap into how you feel when you feel energised? Gathering up the experiences of women can help really close the gaps in our understanding of something like the menstrual cycle."
On an individual basis, the gains could be a lot more radical. Greater body literacy can help people who menstruate understand what is typical for their body and what isn’t and provide them with more evidence to be better advocates for their health. It may also help you capitalise on your body by learning to make the most of the time when your physiology is working with you, not against you.
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Ultimately, this could be the healthiest way of disengaging from the popular idea that going 100% all the time is the only acceptable way to exercise.
"I think we put so much pressure on ourselves in regards to fitness," Jessica says. "I have so many friends who just feel they have to punish themselves and train every day because if they don't, you know that they're behind or they're not getting to where they need to be. But really you need a really holistic approach." By training with your cycle, she says, there is no pressure to keep going, no feeling that if you stop for a day or two, or even a week, you can never start again. The menstrual cycle will keep on cycling; you can just jump back in when you’re ready.
To be one of the first to try Jennis CycleMapping, visit cyclemapping.jennisfitness.com to register (Apple and Android versions both £14.99 per month).

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