Initial results from a major international survey of active women have shown the huge positive impact of exercise on menstrual cycle symptoms. A team of researchers from St Mary’s University and FitrWoman analysed the responses from over 14,000 female members of Strava from around the world. The results revealing that 78% found exercise reduced the symptoms of their period.
The results also showed that women feel that moderate intensity exercise (exercise categorised as ‘hard breathing, able to hold a conversation’) is most effective at combating symptoms. The most commonly experienced symptoms were stomach cramps, breast pain, mood changes, fatigue and cravings; and one in three women have missed work as a result of their menstrual cycle.
These and other symptoms mean that 69% of women report being forced to change their exercise routine and 88% also feel that their exercise performance is worse at some point during their menstrual cycle.
There is positive news, however, as out of the 14,000 women surveyed, those who meet the World Health Organisation’s exercise guidelines alongside eating five or more portions of fruit and vegetables a day are less likely to miss work due to symptoms. Similarly, recovery is also important, with better sleep quality and longer sleep duration shown to be associated with reduced symptoms.
The research was carried out in conjunction with Strava, the social network for athletes, and FitrWoman, a menstrual cycle tracking and exercise app. Strava’s 39 million strong global membership encompasses one of the largest communities of active women in the world and has so far uploaded over 2 billion exercise activities – comprised of everything from running and cycling to yoga and gym workouts.
The study’s architect, exercise physiologist Dr Georgie Bruinvels, is also FitrWoman’s co-creator and has set out to help the countless women she has spoken to throughout her research who have felt that their menstrual cycle is a barrier to regular exercise, or were unsure whether it was healthy and safe to exercise at certain points in their cycle.
“I’m really excited to be able to conduct research on this scale – something that wouldn’t be possible without access to Strava’s incredible community of active women – and hope that the results will benefit women around the world,” said Dr Bruinvels. “We wanted to start an important conversation about exercise, the menstrual cycle and other lifestyle factors that will empower all women to work with their body, not against it. We want women to feel comfortable discussing something that is very normal and natural.”
Alarmingly, 72% of women reported receiving no education regarding exercise and their menstrual cycle. This figure increases to 82% in the UK and Ireland where 40% said they decreased exercise levels during puberty compared to figures of less than 20% in the USA, France and Germany.
Stephanie Hannon, Strava’s Chief Product Officer said “There aren’t enough public forums to openly discuss the menstrual cycle, pain and female athletes. As the largest global community of athletic women, Strava is proud to help advance the understanding of the mind-body connections between period pain and exercise.
“We’re determined to use our platform to highlight how a lack of education and discussion is preventing healthy futures for tomorrow’s everyday athletes and future champions. The data showed that women who had received some education were much less likely to decrease their exercise participation during puberty – the time when so many girls and young women stop playing sport.”
Strava adds that its community of active people is growing by a million members every 30 days and integrations with apps such as FitrWoman are aiming to provide support and education to help women get the most from exercise.