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Better than a hot water bottle: using gentle exercise to treat period pain

At &SISTERS HQ, we know periods don’t stop for hockey matches, swimming practice or even your favourite Ashtanga yoga class – but when we’re curled up on the sofa with period cramps, the idea of exercise can seem (to put it mildly) less than appealing. And although you may feel tempted to throw on your favourite pyjamas and become one with your hot water bottle, research shows that getting up and exercising may actually help reduce the intensity of period pain.

Whether you’re an avid sportswoman or a dabbler in various forms of gentle exercise, we’ve pored through recent research to help you tailor your workouts to your period needs. Even in the case of endometriosis, a disease in which the lining of the womb grows in other places, pain can be helped with mild to moderate exercise. A 2017 study by Awad et al. found that regular exercise, including exercise undertaken during the menstrual phase, can improve pelvic pain in women with endometriosis significantly – so no matter your period needs, check in with your GP (and your body), and show up to that field hockey match, swimming training, Ashtanga yoga class or wherever you choose to break a sweat.

Get moving, get period pain relief

Among other health bodies, our own national treasure, the NHS, recommends exercise as treatment for period pain – gentle activity like walking, swimming or cycling can reduce period symptoms from bloating to cramping. In line with the NHS’s guidance, UK-based nutritionist Dr Sana Khan told The Independent that menstruating women can benefit from light cardio, or even strength training. She added, “oestrogen levels are at their lowest during your period which can make some women feel stronger when strength training.” (Great news for women who engage in strength-based sport!)

If you’d like to try exercise to treat your period pain but you’re fresh out of ideas, try one of our three favourite forms of period exercise: yoga, swimming and walking. Not only are they enjoyable, but studies have proven their effectiveness in banishing negative symptoms related to your period.

Yoga

If you’re like many of us here at &SISTERS HQ, the first day of your period is probably the most painful. Next time you feel like reaching for a box of paracetamol, you may want to try yoga first – gentle stretching can help even on your most painful, sluggish days of your period. A 2016 study by Su-Ying Tsai at I-Shou University in Taiwan found that yoga during the menstrual phase improved six aspects of period-related symptoms: physical function, bodily pain, general health perception, vitality/energy, social function and mental health. What’s more, if you suffer from low mood during PMS or during your period, yoga’s meditative nature can help lift your mood while providing a gateway to mindfulness. And as for period protection, you may want to give pads a miss (unless this is what works for you), and instead reach for a 100% organic cotton tampon or nüdie period cup to help keep leaks at bay.

*Pro tip*: If you suffer from period anxiety, try breathing through a few rounds of cat/cow. London-based Secret Yoga Club founder, Gabrielle Hales, explains that cat/cow can stimulate the vagus nerve, the nerve responsible for quieting the body’s natural fight-or-flight response.

For some further inspiration head over to &SISTERS IGTV where you’ll find our resident yogi – Emily Cohen who will take you through a series of stretches aimed at tackling period pain.

Swimming

There’s a reason many of us like to enjoy time in the pool (or the sea) on holiday – swimming does wonders for the body and mind. Not only is swimming a gentle full-body workout that’s gentle on the joints, but swimming is a go-to treatment for those suffering from severe anxiety. A dip in the pool is both soothing and energising, perfect for improving PMS and period symptoms, and a 2018 study by Maged et al. found that swimming significantly improves physical and psychological symptoms associated with PMS. And while 100% organic cotton tampons can be used while swimming, we’d recommend our nüdie period cup to keep you comfortably protected from leaks in the water.

Walking

There’s nothing quite like a mindful walk, especially when you’re on your period and feeling especially thoughtful. (Hormone fluctuations during this time will help you direct your thoughts inward, paying closer attention to how the outside world makes you feel.) A 2020 study by Ibrahim et al. found that walking to treat PMS and period symptoms not only reduced physical stress by reducing blood cortisol levels, it reduced psychological stress, too. Any period product can suit a walk, so choose something that makes you feel comfortable – whether that’s a 100% organic cotton pad with wings or a nüdie period cup.

While most experts agree that exercise can help reduce period pain, only you know what’s right for you and your period. If you’ve just started your period but you’re meant to attend a training session, speak with your coach or your teammates – with a few adjustments to the intensity of your workout, you can still reap the benefits of your particular form of exercise. Listen to your body, reduce the intensity of your workouts on particularly painful days, and call on fellow women and girls for support – most of us understand first-hand exactly what you’re going through.

Project Synchronise is here to help

Big things are happening at &SISTERS HQ! Over the coming weeks, we’ll be opening the lid on periods and competitive sports (you may find a few exclusives too, so watch this space!). Keep an eye on our Instagram, Crimson Conversations or send us a message at myfirstperiod@andsisters.co.uk for support as you navigate your first period.

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