How Exercise May Change Your Period

Breakthrough Bleeding, Missed Periods, Flow Changes, Pain

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There are many changes in your body that you can expect to happen when you start to exercise regularly. You may have sore muscles, lose weight, sleep better, and gain strength. But what you may not expect is that regular exercise can cause changes to your menstrual cycle, too.

The changes may be subtle or extreme depending on many individual factors that influence how your body reacts to your increased activity level. Here are the four most common effects exercise can have on your period.

how exercise affects period
Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

Breakthrough Bleeding

Regular exercise can cause subtle changes in your hormone levels, which can interfere with the cyclic buildup and shedding of your uterine lining. The lining of your uterus may respond to these mixed hormonal signals by randomly shedding, which causes breakthrough bleeding.

Breakthrough bleeding is vaginal bleeding outside your regular period. It is a common type of abnormal uterine bleeding, which is also known as spotting. This bleeding may be dark or bright red in color. Typically, it is a flow lighter than your regular period. You may also experience breakthrough bleeding during or immediately after strenuous exercise.

There is no direct cause and effect of bleeding after exercise. It could be the result of a disordered endometrium. Or, it could be due to structural changes in the lining of your uterus or on your cervix. It is speculated that the increase in abdominal pressure associated with some types of exercise may cause bleeding from submucosal uterine fibroids, endometrial polyps, and cervical polyps.

Missed Periods

Even though exercise is generally good for you, the physiologic stress of strenuous exercise can interrupt the balance of the hypothalamic-pituitary-ovarian axis in some people. The hypothalamus is a structure in your brain that acts as the control center for your menstrual cycle. It sends hormonal messages to your pituitary gland and your ovaries, which in turn trigger ovulation.

If this communication gets interrupted as the result of a physiologic stressor, like strenuous exercise or significant weight loss, you will not ovulate. If you do not ovulate, the changes that trigger your menstruation will not happen and you will miss your period.

Missing your periods as a result of strenuous exercise is called exercise-induced amenorrhea.

An extreme form of exercise-induced amenorrhea is known as the female athlete triad. The female athlete triad describes a specific condition in adolescent and young female athletes who experience the following:

  • Menstrual dysfunction
  • Low caloric intake
  • Low bone mineral density

The combination of intense strenuous exercise and low caloric intake puts significant stress on the young athlete's body. In response to this physiologic stress, the hypothalamus turns down its stimulation of the ovaries.

Eventually, ovulation stops, along with the athlete's periods. Over time, her ovaries slow down hormonal production, resulting in the dropping of her estrogen level, which in turn causes bone loss along with other negative health consequences.

The female athlete triad is not only common among young athletes but also among young female ballet dancers, especially teenagers who are training hard while trying to maintain a low body weight for the sake of fitting in with the aesthetics of the art form.

Change in Your Flow

Don't be alarmed if you notice that your periods become a bit lighter once you start a regular exercise routine. The same hormonal changes that can stop your periods altogether can exert a weaker effect on your body and lead to a lighter flow.

Another possible change that may contribute to a lighter flow is the moderate weight loss that can come with regular exercise. Body fat or adipose tissue actually produces a type of estrogen. Excess estrogen in your body can cause the lining of your uterus to build up more than usual during the first half of your cycle. The thicker the lining, the heavier your menstrual flow.

With weight loss, you in effect decrease the amount of estrogen in your body, which in turn decreases the cyclic buildup of the lining of your uterus. A thinner lining means decreased flow.

Period Pain

There are two distinct types of period pain. Whether exercise helps or not depends on the cause of your pain.

Primary Dysmenorrhea

Primary dysmenorrhea is a painful period with no identifiable underlying cause. It usually starts with your very first period and then the pain comes with each subsequent period. Often it goes away by the time you are in your 20s. It is likely that exercise can help reduce this type of painful period.

It is thought that the subtle hormonal changes associated with regular exercise may decrease the concentration of prostaglandins in the lining of your uterus. Prostaglandins are inflammatory substances produced in your body that are responsible for causing uterine muscle contractions and cramps. That is why pain medications that block the production of prostaglandins like ibuprofen and NSAIDs work best to treat menstrual cramps.

Decreasing the concentration of prostaglandins decreases period cramping. However, clinical studies of this hypothesis have not been robust enough to reach a conclusion as to whether exercise helps or not.

Secondary Dysmenorrhea

Secondary dysmenorrhea is a painful period that results from an underlying pathology. This type of menstrual pain usually develops over time and may not start until at least in your 20s or even later. Two common conditions that cause this type of period pain are adenomyosis and uterine fibroids.

If you have secondary dysmenorrhea, exercise may help to reduce painful periods by its effects on prostaglandins. As in primary dysmenorrhea, prostaglandins play a major role in causing uterine contractions and cramping even with an underlying pathology.

However, do not be alarmed if you have increased pain when you exercise during your period, especially if you have uterine fibroids, which are benign tumors that grow from the smooth muscles in the wall of your uterus. Fibroids develop a network of blood vessels because they need blood and nutrients to grow.

When you exercise, your body subtly shifts the blood flow away from other structures not involved in the exercise to favor your heart, lungs, and your muscles. Under normal circumstances, your uterus adapts to this without any problem. But if you have fibroids, it is possible that they experience a significant decrease in blood flow during exercise.

This causes a condition known as ischemia, which is similar to what happens in heart muscles before a heart attack. When a muscle becomes ischemic, you feel it as pain.

If you have fibroids of substantial sizes, it is likely that you will have an increase in uterine pain and cramping when you exercise during your period because of ischemia.

A Word From Verywell

For the most part, some breakthrough bleeding or an occasional missed period is not a big concern if you have just started exercising, have suddenly increased the intensity of your exercise, or have just lost a lot of weight. But if you have seen a change in your cycle that continues for two to three months in a row, you should discuss it with your healthcare provider.

Overall, exercise has positive effects on your period. It is interesting to note that women who are sedentary and do not get regular exercise typically have heavier and more painful periods. Get moving. After all, who wouldn't want a lighter period with less cramping? 

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5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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