We’ve heard it before, but it bears repeating: Exercise is good for everyone. From schoolchildren to your darling grandfather, everyone out there can benefit from regular physical activity. But when it comes to women, do you know the specific impact it can make?
Of course, we all have our unique genetic predisposition and existing conditions, but exercise can influence you in a way that specifically nurtures your feminine health. Learn about it, embrace it—you deserve to know so you can make the best choices for your body.
01. It significantly reduces risk for breast cancer.
Depending on your gender, you’re automatically predisposed to developing certain chronic conditions. And when you’re a woman, breast cancer is at the top of that list. According to the American Cancer Society, it’s the most common type of cancer amongst American women, aside from skin cancers. The diagnosis rate? A whopping one in eight women.
Breast cancer might seem like something to think about in a few years (or decades). But like many other chronic diseases, it doesn’t develop overnight. It’s a culmination of many genetic and lifestyle factors over time—and regular exercise can be a game changer.
The Susan G. Komen Foundation notes that regular exercise can reduce breast cancer risk by a staggering 10 to 20 percent. Walking thirty minutes a day can lower risk by 3 percent. Living an active lifestyle supports healthy weight management—a significant factor in breast cancer risk. Research in The Oncologist attributes this relationship to estrogen, the primary female sex hormone. Estrogen is especially prevalent with the presence of excess fat tissue. And while it is an essential hormone for body functions, too much can fuel the growth of certain breast cancer cells, according to Cancer Prevention Research.
A powerful immune system can also equip your body to handle the “bad guys:” everything from carcinogens to tumors. “Even moderate physical activity is enough to promote a stronger immune system,” says Dr. Sharon E. Orrange, MD, MPH, FACP, Clinical Associate Professor at Keck Medicine of the University of Southern California.
The Journal of Physical Activity and Health reports that middle-age women who participate in music aerobic exercise (Zumba class, anyone?) have higher-functioning lymphocytes, also known as the body’s natural killer cells (or white blood cells). The Public Library of Science states that practicing yoga can help those lymphocytes thrive and kick some carcinogenic and cancerous butt. Namaste, ladies.
02. It keeps Aunt Flo’s schedule regular.
Menstruation is like a mirror; it reflects what’s going on within the depths of our bodies. From frequency to flow, the traits of our period are extremely telling.
A regular period is a positive indicator of both feminine and overall health. Regularity means that your body is producing normal levels of estrogen, the female sex hormone that influences everything from your brain to heart functions. Normal levels, according to the National Woman’s Health Resource Center, are necessary for successfully performing processes like bone growth.
With consistent mild exercise, Aunt Flo is more likely to visit each month. Again, healthy weight is a crucial factor in consistent periods. Women with lower body fat percentages, like athletes, often experience amenorrhea, the absence of or missed periods. “Even a small weight change can increase or decrease your menstrual flow,” says Dr. Jenny M. Jaque, MD, division chief of General Obstetrics and Gynecology, associate residency program director, and assistant professor of Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology at USC. “Keeping a healthy weight will result in regular periods every month.”
Get to know your body by charting your cycle, even if you aren’t trying to conceive. While the average menstrual cycle is twenty-eight days, keep in mind that your “normal” cycle may differ. Pay attention to your normal and the things that your period is trying to tell you. And when it comes to exercise, there’s no need to overdo it. Moderation is key.
03. It alleviates period pain.
So, you get your period each month and all is well. Right? Well, maybe. For something that demonstrates the beautiful complexities of the female body, it can sure be painful. Cramps, soreness, throbbing—you know the drill.
Known as dysmenorrhea, period pain is the most common menstrual disorder. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists shares that more than half of menstruating women experience period cramps.
According to the Journal of Research in Health Sciences, physical activity lessens the severity and duration of menstrual pain. This correlation stems from exercise-induced rise in endorphins, which can increase the pain threshold. These researchers also speculate that exercise alleviates stress, which affects the same part of the nervous system that induces uterine contractions. Low stress levels ease aggravation of uterine contractions, aka cramps.
Instead of popping a painkiller, consider light exercise. Take a walk around the block. Practice a simple yoga sequence in the comfort of your home. Remember, there is an amazing source of free workout videos designed for various skill levels and conditions. It might be just what you need to kick those cramps to the curb.
04. It promotes ovulation and a healthy pregnancy.
Even if you aren’t planning for pregnancy, you can’t deny the stunning ability of a woman’s body to create life. Our fertility is something sacred. And because today’s lifestyle choices can—and will—impact future pregnancies, our current habits are certainly worth thinking about.
“Regular exercise can greatly improve pregnancy outcome,” shares Dr. Orrange. The healthier you are before pregnancy, the healthier your pregnancy will be.
Exercise positively benefits fertility and pregnancy in multiple ways. For starters, healthy weight management prepares the body to nurture and carry a baby. Being overweight is associated with poor fertilization rates and greater pregnancy complications, according to the Journal of Human Reproductive Sciences. There’s also an increased risk for miscarriage. Coupled with a well-rounded diet, regular exercise promotes successful ovulation and pregnancy support.
05. It relieves stress.
Stress relief, an established outcome of exercise, can encourage normal periods and ovulation. Extreme stress levels can result in amenorrhea. The Center of Disease Control pegs amenorrhea as one of the main causes of infertility, as ovulation fails to occur each month. Exercise eases stress, which is a factor that guides your period’s schedule. “Stress influences the hormones responsible for your period function, resulting in fewer or lighter periods,” Dr. Jaque says. Getting your period on track can greatly improve fertilization rates. It can also help you was you conceive.
Especially when you’re pregnant, stress can do a number on you . . . and your baby. Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology shares that maternal stress can dampen neurobehavioral fetal development. As a result, your little one is more likely to develop behavioral issues such as autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. While we can’t eliminate stress, we can manage it. Soak in the mood-boosting benefits of exercise to ease your body in preparation for a healthy pregnancy down the line.
Keep in mind these female-specific outcomes the next time you need motivation to get to the gym or go for that early-morning jog. Something as simple as walking instead of driving or taking the stairs instead of the elevator can be a total game changer for your feminine health. Treat your body well, and it will return the favor fourfold.
Photo Credit: Lauren Steimle