My mom used to say, “Whoever said you should exercise during your period must have been a man!” We would chuckle, plug in our heating pads, take some Advil, and pity the poor fools who tried to sweat their way through the pain. Though exercise is out of the question on days when the pain is unbearable, could it benefit women with endometriosis?
Unfortunately, there is very little research on how exercise impacts the symptoms of endo, and although studies have shown that physical activity reduces the risk of endometriosis, a recent meta-analysis was inconclusive as to whether exercise is directly beneficial at an endocrine or molecular level.
Aside from the nausea, pain and fatigue, women with endometriosis or adenomyosis can also suffer from anemia due to the prolonged heavy bleeding, which in turn causes more fatigue and makes even light exercise feel significantly more strenuous. So, you’re thinking, I don’t have to exercise after all?
Not so fast, sister…
Exercise is a natural pain reliever, antidepressant, sleep aid, and stress reducer, and best of all, it’s free from side effects. Exercise has a protective effect against inflammatory diseases and actually boosts the body’s ability to manage chronic pain! And though we all know by now that these myriad benefits are brought about by the production of endorphins in the body, did you know that exercise also reduces estrogen levels??
Endometriosis is an estrogen-dependent disease, with symptoms peaking during reproductive age and regressing after menopause, suggesting that the growth of the disease itself is fueled by estrogen. Nonsurgical treatments typically focus on reducing estrogen levels to ease symptoms, so it stands to reason that regular exercise is likely to help.
If you’re not already exercising, don’t panic. Jumping from a sedentary lifestyle straight into an intense “shredding” program is not setting yourself up for success. Ease gradually into lower intensity exercises like yoga and pilates (check out our article on the best yoga poses for endo!), which focus on lengthening and stretching muscles, or try swimming or biking, which are easier on joints and adhesions.
If lack of motivation is your biggest obstacle to exercise, challenge yourself to think outside the box. Make it a social event by going rock climbing, taking a dance class, playing tennis, volleyball, or hiking! If nothing else, enlisting an exercise partner provides accountability and makes it harder to cancel.
If pain is keeping you from exercising, just walking for 15-20 minutes each day is better than nothing. If your pain is too severe to walk daily or if you are recovering from surgery, talk to your doctor or an accredited exercise physiologist about ways to manage pain and create a post-surgery exercise plan. Avoid exercises that are high intensity or high impact after surgery; it’s best to start slowly and increase intensity gradually over time.
Focus on sustainability—don’t push so hard that you’re bedridden for days. Something is better than nothing, even if that means stretching while streaming Netflix. Finally, be flexible and patient with yourself and listen to your body. Be as consistent as you can and rest when you should. As always, keep fighting, warrior!
Countdown to the 2019 Minnesota Endo March