5 Things to Know About Exercising During Your Period

If you tend to ditch the gym during that time of the month, here’s something to think about: A woman named Kiran Gandhi recently made news for running the London Marathon during her period—without a tampon. She did it to raise awareness for women who lack access to feminine care products, and crossed the finish line with blood-soaked tights. So if she could run 26.2 miles bleeding freely, then the rest of us can probably handle a 45-minute Spin class, right? Yes, absolutely—in fact, multiple studies show menstruating women feel better when they get moving.

Here, everything you need to know about exercising on your period (your call whether you want to raise awareness about it).

RELATED: 10 Things That Mess With Your Period

It helps with annoying period-related symptoms

It may seem like the last thing you want to do when you have your period, but working out can help relieve the symptoms that make getting your period so annoying in the first place.”The more active you are [overall] and more regular you are with your activity, the better your periods end up being—less cramping, less heavy flow,” explains Stacy Sims, PhD, an exercise physiologist for USA Cycling Women’s Track Endurance Program and co-founder of Osmo Nutrition.

Case in point: when you sweat, water leaves the body, which can relieve uncomfortable belly bloat. Exercise also releases mood-boosting endorphins, which anecdotal evidence suggests might at least take your mind off discomfort or pain. And, a recent study revealed a correlation between higher levels of physical fitness and fewer PMS symptoms.

It may be the best time to do HIIT

The best workout to do during your period? High-intensity interval training, Sims says. “When your period starts, your estrogen and progesterone levels drop. And because of this, women can access carbohydrate/glycogen easily, as compared to high-estrogen time periods [when we] rely more on the slow breakdown of fat.” In other words, this hormone shift makes fuel more accessible to your body, allowing you to push harder and get more out of short, fast-paced workouts than you would during other times of the month.

RELATED: 6 Things You Should Know About Having Sex During Your Period

It keeps you cool

Really. Turns out your body temperature is actually lower during your period, which is a low-hormone phase. “This increases time to fatigue, and allows the body to store more heat without hitting the tipping point of central nervous system fatigue,” Sims says. Not to mention, during this time we can tolerate hotter and more humid climates (hello, hot yoga!),  Sims adds.

You can make it more comfortable

Know your period is coming up? Don’t let the pain sneak up on you. It’s totally fine to take an over-the-counter NSAID pain reliever, like naproxen or ibuprofen, 24 to 48 hours before your period is due. This way, you can sidestep your symptoms before they keep you home from the gym. If you forget, be sure to take them at the first twinge of pain.

If you’re like Gandhi and find tampons uncomfortable during exercise, there’s no shortage of products to try: pads, liners, and now menstrual cups and even specialized period-proof underwear.

It’s okay to give yourself a break

All this said, if you’re really just not feeling it, don’t beat yourself up for not going all out. Even just a gentle stroll counts as exercise, and it may help you feel better. “Your best bet is to do some light and easy movement that helps reduce inflammation via blood flow,” Sims says. “If you really feel terrible, it’s all right to take a day or two off.”

A final note, if you’re regularly sidelined by your periods, consider talking to your doctor; prescription remedies like the birth control pill might be helpful. Plus, it’s a good idea to have major aches and super heavy periods investigated because those could signal a health problem like endometriosis.

Craving Chocolate to Ease PMS? Blame Society, Not Biology

You know that crazy-intense choclate bar craving that hits you hard around the time your  is due? You’re in good company in the candy aisle; almost 50% of women in the United States say they crave chocolate during their PMS week as well. 

Scientists have hypothesized that hormonal fluctuations or nutritional deficiencies may play a role. But new research suggests that a period-related hankering for chocolate is more about the cultural norms of where you live than anything going on in your body.

The new study, published in PLOS ONE, compared survey responses about chocolate cravings, culture, and PMS from 275 undergraduate women at the University at Albany, the State University of New York. The woman were from more than 25 different countries and had diverse backgrounds; researchers specifically recruited participants who were born outside the United States, had parents born outside of the United States, had spent time living in other countries, or primarily spoke a language other than English while growing up.

RELATED: 10 Ways to Get Rid of PMS

When it came to the women’s responses, that diversity made a difference. Foreign-born women weren’t any less likely to say they experienced chocolate cravings in general—but they were significantly less likely than U.S.-born women to believe their menstrual cycle had anything to do with them.

Specifically, 41% of U.S.-born women who grew up speaking another language, and 33% of U.S.-born women who grew up speaking English, reported experiencing chocolate cravings at specific times during their menstrual cycle, compared to only 17% of foreign-born women. What’s more, the foreign-born and second-generation Americans who did report PMS-related chocolate cravings also tended to feel more immersed in U.S. culture than those who did not.

“We are learning more and more that cravings, or at least certain elements of them, may be unique to North America,” says lead author Julia Hormes, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the University at Albany, State University of New York.

This isn’t the first study to suggest that PMS-related food cravings are a product of American living, either. Previous research has found that only 28% of Spanish women crave chocolate around the time of their periods, and that only 6% of Egyptian women crave chocolate at all. (Some languages don’t even have a word for cravings, Hormes says.) 

RELATED: 5 Ways to Beat the Bloat

It’s also not the first research to cast doubt on the idea that cravings, in general, are biological. In 2014, Hormes published a similar study, which found that pregnancy cravings seem to be a largely a cultural phenomenon as well. Last year, she also published research showing that pregnancy cravings are a strong predictor of excess weight gain.

All of this doesn’t mean your intense desire for Triple Fudge Chunk brownies on or around the first day of your period isn’t real, Hormes says. But it does probably mean it’s more in your head—and the heads of others around you—than in your hormones or any other part of your body.

“The response isn’t usually very enthusiastic when I tell people it’s nothing physiological,” Hormes jokes. “People tend to prefer that explanation, because it kind of takes away the personal responsibility.” (It is worth pointing out that Hormes’ research focuses specifically on chocolate—and that some experts do believe that fluctuating estrogen and progesterone levels may play a role in feeling extra hungry the week before your period.)

Hormes hopes that by pointing to culture as a major contributor of specific food urges, she can help women understand them better and make smarter choices. “It’s really about how we view foods like chocolate—high-fat, high-sugar, tasty foods that we tend to vilify and make them taboo,” she says. “I think women are particularly susceptible to that message because of expectations about ideal beauty and being skinny.”

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“The more you try to stay away from a food, the more likely you are to start obsessing over it,” she adds. “And our culture encourages that at certain times—like during our periods when we feel crummy, or during pregnancy—it’s socially acceptable to treat ourselves when we might otherwise not.”

Hormes encourages women to strive for healthy relationships with food, including chocolate, at all times of the month. “Everything in moderation: Have that piece of chocolate, make sure it’s high-quality, and don’t let yourself go overboard,” she says.

When PMS Strikes, How Do You Fight Back?

I never understood why some women get angry at ‘time of the month’ jokes. Because I, for one, always laugh. Have these females somehow managed to bypass the hormonal nightmare that is PMS? Do they not understand the pain of the otherwise confident, emotionally stable, lighthearted, and happy woman who, five days out of the month, is diminished to a carb-craving, ibuprofen-popping, crying-at-tissue-commercials, uber-sensitive evil sloth? If you’re one of these women, I’m so envious. Please share your secrets!

Pills, prevention and retentionDespite doing everything right (exercising, drinking tons of water, getting lots of sleep, eating healthy foods, and regulating alcohol, caffeine, and sugar), I’m still plagued by this demon. After a health scare several months ago, I even stopped taking birth control pills but have yet to see a noticeable decrease of PMS symptoms—with the exception of water retention. Unfortunately, the water retention was my favorite part of this affliction because it was the only time that my otherwise tiny chest expanded. Going off of the pill eliminated the bloating, but kept the same amount of crazy.

Innocent bystanders and rock candyLuckily for him, my live-in boyfriend is out of town for work and will escape the hot mess tornado that I’m about to become. Last month, I spent at least two nights picking fights with him (we never fight) after getting tipsy off of two glasses of wine because he was less than enthusiastic about having pasta for dinner. After crying myself to sleep, I woke up at 2 AM with such an intense sugar craving that I fumbled around the apartment until I eventually satiated myself with stale blue rock candy that had been purchased in honor of the Breaking Bad premier (I haven’t eaten rock candy since I was 7).

I crawled back into bed, shamefully crunching on the blue garbage, hoping that my boyfriend wouldn’t wake up and see me hiding under the covers, shoving crystallized sugar into my face. Needless to say, I’m terrified about what will happen if/when I get pregnant—I can’t imagine nine months of hormone-induced shenanigans.

I’ve tried vitamins, yoga, eliminating dairy, and even mild anti-depressants to no avail. At 32, I’ve been dealing with this for more than 15 years, and I’ve pretty much accepted the Mr. Hyde that pillages my life every month. Ladies—what have you done to help conquer PMS? I’m open to all tips and welcome your feedback. Please holler!

How PMS Makes Post

Why do my muscles get sore before my period?

Although abdominal cramps tend to be the most talked-about sign of PMS, joint or muscle pain throughout your body is fairly common around that time of the month, too. Blame hormonal fluctuations, which can make your nerve endings extra sensitive and more likely to perceive regular muscle activity as pain.

If you’re prone to premenstrual aches, you might want to hold off on getting a bikini wax or trying a new gym class until your period is in full swing, because you’ll feel pain more strongly when you’re PMS-ing. If the soreness is regular and severe, talk to your doc about long-term treatment options, like going on a birth control pill to help regulate your hormone levels. Otherwise, over-the-counter anti-inflammatories can bring relief.

In the meantime, taking good care of yourself—getting enough sleep, exercising regularly and reducing stress—can help minimize this and other annoying PMS symptoms.

Roshini Rajapaksa, MD, Health‘s medical editor, is assistant professor of medicine at the NYU School of Medicine and co-founder of Tula Skincare.

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Why Is My Period Late

If you’re not trying to conceive, a late period can be nerve-wracking. But it’s not until you’ve ruled out pregnancy that it becomes really stressful: Does a late or totally absent period mean something’s really wrong? Not necessarily, explains Mary Rosser, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. There are actually a number of reasons for a missed period other than pregnancy. Here, 7 of the most common culprits she sees in her practice.

 

The culprit: You've gained or lost weight

Dr. Rosser says a weight change is one of the more common reasons menstrual cycles become irregular. If you’ve recently lost or gained 10% or more of your body weight, you could find yourself skipping a period.

“Major weight changes, particularly when it comes to losing weight, can cause hormones to become imbalanced,” she says. “When your body is underweight or overweight, your estrogen levels change (estrogen increases when you gain weight and drops when you lose it), and you might not release an egg and have a regular period as a result.”

RELATED: 15 Things Nobody Tells You About Losing Weight

The culprit: You're working out… a lot

Just like a big weight change, extreme exercise can also knock your reproductive hormones out of sync. “You see this a lot with marathon runners or ballet dancers, for example,” Dr. Rosser says. “Stress on the body can alter your menstrual cycle, particularly when it goes hand-in-hand with weight loss.”

The culprit: You're stressed

It’s not just physical stress that can mess with your cycle—mental stress can have an impact, too. So if you’re going through a particularly busy time at work or handling a difficult personal situation, don’t be surprised if your period goes AWOL that month. The good news: “Any kind of stressor can cause your period to become off, but when the stressful issue is resolved, your cycle should return to normal,” Dr. Rosser says.

RELATED: 10 Ways to Get Rid of PMS

The culprit: Your medication

Certain medicines are sometimes to blame for menstrual irregularity. “Women who are on antidepressants or other psychiatric medications may experience missed periods,” Dr. Rosser says, adding that chemotherapy drugs can have a similar effect on your cycle.

Your birth control can also be to blame. “The IUD can make the lining in the uterus thin, and sometimes patients will miss a period as a result,” Dr. Rosser explains. Stopping birth control pills can mess with your cycle, too; it can take a few months for your period to get back on track.

The culprit: Thyroid issues

An overactive or underactive thyroid (a gland on your neck that helps regulate your metabolism and body temperature) can impact your cycle. “When thyroid hormone levels are unusually high or low, this could lead to menstrual changes,” Dr. Rosser says.

This is something that your doctor will need to investigate once you’ve ruled out pregnancy. She can order blood tests to check your levels, and if there’s a problem, she can prescribe appropriate medications to help regulate your hormones.

RELATED: 19 Signs Your Thyroid Isn’t Working Right

The culprit: Perimenopause

Perimenopause is the period during which your body is making a natural shift toward menopause, when your period stops for good. For most women, perimenopause starts with menstrual irregularity sometime in your 40s, but it can also start earlier for some. You may have hot flashes and mood swings, Dr. Rosser says. Medications, like hormone replacement therapy, can help if these are bothersome.

The culprit: Your body is still changing

It’s also normal for teenagers to skip a period. “I tell my teenage patients to think of their changing bodies like thermometers,” Dr. Rosser says. “When you increase the temperature of a thermometer, it takes awhile for the heat to catch up with the dial. Similarly, it takes awhile for your body to catch up when your hormones are changing rapidly, so you may see irregular cycles during this time.”

The bottom line? Stay calm, Dr. Rosser says. “I often have patients who come in panicked that they missed a period, but I tell them that it’s normal to have one or two imperfect cycles a year.”

RELATED: 10 Things That Mess With Your Period

 

The Truth About Your Cycle and Your Appetite

The cliché is at least a little true: A new study found that emotional eating in women tends to spike about a week before their periods. But PMS doesn’t automatically equal diet disaster, says Joshua Klein, MD, a reproductive endocrinologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. Check out these facts.

RELATED: The Best and Worst Foods For Bloating

You’re not wired to binge

Studies have shown that during the second half of your cycle (the luteal phase), you may experience an amped-up appetite because levels of progesterone—an ovarian hormone also connected to hunger—are higher. But there are other hormones counterbalancing that. “For example, leptin, a hormone that suppresses appetite, is higher during the second half of the cycle, too,” says Dr. Klein.

There’s a reason you crave chocolate

Insulin and the happy hormone serotonin dip during the luteal phase, while the stress hormone cortisol increases. “Chocolate makes you feel good,” says Dr. Klein. “The fat and sugars help replenish insulin and serotonin levels in the brain, elevating your mood.”

RELATED: 28 Healthy Chocolate Recipes

Your metabolism gets a mini boost

Most women actually burn slightly more calories than normal during this phase. “We don’t know exactly why,” says Dr. Klein, “but it could be that mechanisms are in play preparing for possible pregnancy, which requires more energy expenditure.” So it’s all right to indulge a bit. You have (a little!) wiggle room.

RELATED: Healthy Snacks for Every Craving

Period Tracker Apps

Thanks to technology, the days of marking upcoming periods with a red dot in our calendars are officially behind us. As the New York Times recently noted, there are now more than 200 period tracking apps available in the App store. These downloads (many of them free) take the guesswork out of your menstrual cycle by monitoring your periods, notifying you when you’re most fertile, and alerting you to impending PMS. Some even offer additional perks like access to exclusive online forums, health tips on what to expect at different times of the month, and personalized horoscopes that are synced to your cycle. I downloaded about a dozen of the most popular apps available to see which work best. Here, my top four picks.

RELATED: 4 Cycle-Tracking Apps to Help You Get Pregnant

Clue

How it works: Of all the period tracker apps I downloaded, Clue was by far my favorite and the one I’ll likely continue to use. Not only does it have a sleek, easy-to-use interface, but it also gets bonus points in my book for not having tons of flowers in the design (seriously, almost all the other apps were covered in pink and purple daisies).

To get started, you’ll be prompted to answer a few basic questions about your health (date of birth, date of your last period, weight, height, etc.). After you complete the questionnaire, you can begin monitoring your current cycle to track your upcoming period, fertile window, and when you might experience PMS.

If you use the app only occasionally, you’ll still be able to get a quick picture of your cycle. But if you log on daily and are diligent about recording your “data” (how many hours of sleep you got the night before, whether or not you exercised, etc.), Clue is able to convert that information into insights—so you’ll eventually have a better idea of how your cycle affects the way you feel at different times of the month.

Download it: Free on iTunes and Google Play

RELATED: The 9 Best Workouts to Do When You Have Your Period

Eve

How it works: Like Clue, Eve asks you to complete a brief questionnaire about your health when you first download the app. Eve also closely resembles Clue with its cycle chart (that similarly lets you toggle between a circle or calendar view). There’s also a “Feed” tab where you can log how you’re feeling each day.

What really differentiates Eve from other period tracker apps, though, is its active community. There, you can connect with other users in a variety of different forums like “Love & Sex” and “Sexplanations.” (Note: while online communities are a great resource for sharing experiences and getting ideas, we wouldn’t recommend taking health advice straight from message boards like these—if you have a medical question, always be sure to consult your doctor).

Download it: Free on iTunes

RELATED: The Best and Worst Foods for Bloating

P.C.

How it works: Try not to let the slightly vague name and magenta flower logo deter you: the P.C. app has an extremely user-friendly interface and loads of handy tools. I like the quick-view homepage (above, left) that gives you a top-line overview of where you’re at in your cycle, as well as the “Reports” where you can track your health more closely. If you’re trying to conceive, the “Intercourse” report (above, right) would be particularly helpful for monitoring your most fertile days.

Download it: Free on iTunes and Google Play

RELATED: 10 Things That Mess With Your Period

Mood Horoscope and Period Tracker

How it works: Finally, if you’re the kind of person who loves reading a daily horoscope, this app is for you. It’s definitely more horoscope- than period-tracker focused, but provides personalized horoscopes based on where you’re at in your cycle, making it a fun complement to the more cycle-focused apps on this list.

Download it: Free on iTunes

RELATED: All Your Period Problems, Solved (Like What’s Normal and What’s Not)

Period Subscription Boxes to Make That Time of the Month More Bearable

When Aunt Flo comes to town, life can seem pretty bleak. That’s why several companies have made it their mission to brighten your week of cramps and bad moods. How? By delivering care packages filled with essential products—tampons, pads, even chocolate—just in time for the start of your cycle. Not only do these subscription boxes make your period more pleasant (and save you a tampon-run to the drugstore), but they also promote a powerful message.  “We aim to get people to realize it is okay to talk about menstruation—it’s natural and nothing to be ashamed of,” Karen Thomson, owner of The Period Store told Health in an email. “We need to learn more about how it impacts our bodies, our emotions, our health.”

RELATED: 9 Best Workouts to Do When You Have Your Period

The PMS Package

Just in time for your period, The PMS Package claims to be “Comfort delivered to your door, right when you need it most!” They back up this statement by sending care packages that include anything from candy to your favorite movie. You can choose between three pre-set sizes: Mini ($12.99), Featured ($24.99), or Executive ($34.99). The contents of each package change on a monthly basis, so there’s always a pleasant surprise waiting at your doorstep.

HelloFlo

HelloFlo’s care packages are designed to help women and girls manage transitional stages in their lives—whether it’s a first period, going to college, or having a baby. The site also features women’s health news, personal essays, and tips about puberty, menopause, and everything in between. As far as packages go, they offer everything from a “Period Starter Kit” to a “New Mom Survival Kit”—all of which offer a combination of supplies, treats and practical advice. But if you just want to ease your period woes, they also have a “Signature Kit” that should do the trick. Prices range from $29.95 to $79.95.

RELATED: Best and Worst Foods for Bloating

The Period Store

The Period Store’s fully customizable packages allow you to stick with the traditional route with pads and tampons, go for eco-friendly products, or even choose less traditional sea-sponges, diva cups, or herbal-infused pads. The store also offers accessories like ice packs, jewelry, period panties, and essential oils. Each package includes a gourmet sweet, two tea bags, and a 5×7 piece of inspirational art. (All packages also come with two medicine packets, but check with your doctor before taking anything new.)  Package options range from “Treats” ($15 for chocolate, art, meds, and tea) to “Heavy” ($30 for 3 products, chocolate, art, meds, and tea).

Bonjour Jolie

At Bonjour Jolie, packages are a bit more customizable. Every month, you’re allotted up to 25 items of your choosing—whether that be pads, tampons, liners, pampering items, specialty teas, artisan confections, feminine wipes, or Advil. Plus, each package includes a special gift. The company offers a one-time “First Period Box” as well, which includes a handpicked gift, artisan sweets, specialty teas, pampering spa items, pads and lines, plus a case to hold supplies. Beyond the first period, you have two simple subscription options: one box ($25.75/month) or monthly ($21.75/month).

RELATED: 10 Things That Mess With Your Period

Le Parcel

Similar to Bonjour Jolie, Le Parcel allows you to hand-select up to 25 products that perfectly fit your needs. These can include tampons, pads, and/or panty liners. Plus, each parcel comes with a curated gift and premium chocolate treat (because we all know how essential chocolate is at this time of the month). Le Parcel tries to keep things simple with only one size and price option: $15/month plus shipping and handling.

 

It Hurts to Put in Tampons. What's Going On?

Q: All of the sudden it hurts to use tampons. What could be wrong?

Is your flow very light? Sometimes it’s slightly painful to insert or remove a tampon simply because your vagina is dry. You may also be drier after childbirth or during breast-feeding or perimenopause, when levels of estrogen are low. Using a lubricant should help relieve the dryness and make it easier for the applicator to slide in.

RELATED: 10 Things That Mess With Your Period

Alternatively, your pelvic muscles may not be relaxed enough while you put the tampon in or pull it out. See if it helps to take a deep breath, then completely release your pelvic muscles, before you fiddle with a tampon. Although it’s uncommon, some women have a condition known as vaginismus, which makes the muscles of the vaginal canal tense up, and they may feel a tearing or burning sensation if anything is inserted. Doing Kegel exercises often helps relax the pelvic floor. But for some women, vaginismus is related to underlying stress or anxiety about sex, and counseling may be helpful.

RELATED: 10 Ways to Deal With Painful Sex

If you would describe the pain as more of a stinging when you put a tampon in, it could be a sign of vulvodynia, a pain disorder that affects the vulva. Treatment varies from woman to woman: Some find relief by using a cold pack or taking a low-dose antidepressant. Switching to cotton menstrual products and underwear may also be worth a try. If you’re having trouble getting a tampon in at all, there’s also a possibility that you have a cyst, a small sac typically filled with fluid either on or in the vaginal lining. A cyst can form if the vaginal wall gets injured during childbirth or surgery, or due to a bacterial infection. It usually doesn’t cause much discomfort. If the cyst is small and isn’t really bothering you (aside from obstructing your tampon insertion a bit), you probably don’t need to treat it. Some vaginal cysts go away on their own. But if it’s growing in size or causing real pain, it could be infected and may need to be surgically removed.

RELATED: 9 Best Workouts to Do When You Have Your Period

Experiencing pain with tampon use could also indicate cervical inflammation, endometriosis or an infection caused by an STD. Clearly the answer isn’t black and white, so I would encourage you to stop using tampons if it’s uncomfortable and visit your gynecologist, who can perform a pelvic exam to get to the root of your pain and find a solution.

Health’s medical editor, Roshini Rajapaksa, MD, is assistant professor of medicine at the NYU School of Medicine.

This Board Game About Periods Is Breaking the Taboo on Menstruation

Menstruation has been occurring in women’s bodies once a month since, well, forever. So why are people scared to talk about periods? 

That’s what Daniela Gilsanz and Ryan Murphy were wondering when they came up with The Period Game for a class project at the Rhode Island School of Design. The adorable and clever board game—featuring a 3D model of ovaries (naturally)—is meant to teach tweens about their bodies in a fun and taboo-free way. 

Players spin one of the ovaries and a marble “egg” drops out. The color (clear or red) determines your next move. As kids make their way around the board, they throw down cards related to PMS symptoms and protection. The idea? To allow both girls and boys to get used to saying things like “ovulation,” “super tampon,” and “menstrual cup” without any stigma attached.

“[Ryan and I] were very open with each other and fairly comfortable with the subject matter,” says Gilsanz, “but when we first began presenting the project to our class—a bunch of art school twenty-somethings—people were more uncomfortable than we expected. Seeing that reassured us that this was a project we needed to pursue.”

RELATED: 9 Best Workouts to Do When You Have Your Period

Their Period Game has been gaining some much-deserved national attention after winning the (very appropriate) Red Dot award, an international design competition. The game is still in the prototype stage, but Gilsanz and Murphy are shopping their model to potential partners, and hoping get it on store shelves in the not-too-distant future. “We want pre-teens to feel empowered by their bodies,” says Gilsanz, “and comfortable talking about them from an early age.” That can’t happen soon enough.