When it comes to starting a family, the world of exercise can quickly become confusing. You may not get specialized advice from your doctor, fitness studios tend to be wary of women going through fertility treatments and the internet offers workouts that you’re not entirely sure look safe. How can you know you’re looking after your body in a way that supports fertility? It’s best to arm yourself with as much knowledge as you can from an exercise professional who specializes in these areas (hi, it’s me!).
In the 15 years that I’ve been teaching pilates, yoga and fitness, I’ve worked with thousands of women on their journeys to motherhood and beyond. I’ve spent hundreds of hours studying and learning from some of the most informed practitioners and researchers around the world. I would love to share with you how I coach my clients as they try to conceive.
How does exercise affect fertility?
The general health benefits of exercise are widely researched (and include: improved cardiovascular health, lowered risk of heart disease and diabetes and keeping you at a healthy weight range). All these benefits extend to fertility. However, it’s important to start matching your exercise routine to your menstrual cycle if trying to conceive to maximize hormonal balance.
Exercise and cycle-syncing is an important factor while TTC. We are cyclical beings and have unique hormonal needs at each stage of the month. For example, during your period, your body is working overtime to shed the lining of the previous month. At this time, we notice our energy levels are lower, and we’re less motivated to get out and exercise. We should embrace this—conserving energy during menstruation keeps stress levels low. If you push yourself to exercise during this time (especially high-intensity exercise) it can lead to the release of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. These stress hormones, over time, can interfere with ovulation. Resting during your period can prevent this—and without all those added stress hormones being produced by your body, your hormones can naturally balance more easily throughout the month.
As you move towards the follicular phase and ovulation, your energy and your sex hormones (FSH, LH and estrogen) naturally start to increase. At this time, we can work with the increase of energy by adding intensity to our workouts. Following ovulation, FSH and LH levels will drop, and progesterone is produced to prepare for a potential pregnancy. If you’re TTC, it’s important to bring your exercise intensity back down during the two-week wait. Again, this assists in keeping stress levels low and signalling to your brain that it’s an optimal environment for conception.
What type of exercise should you do when trying to conceive?
One of the most beneficial things you can do for your fertility, when it comes to exercise, is to start living in sync with your cycle. Your menstrual cycle has four distinct phases: menstruation, follicular, ovulatory and luteal. Changing your exercise routine according to each phase will assist in balancing your hormones, providing you with more energy throughout the month and improving sleep.
Menstruation: Focus on deep rest, restorative yoga and gentle movements like walking.
Follicular: As your body begins to build in energy, you can start to increase the intensity of your workouts. Here you can include more high intensity exercise and heavy weights.
Ovulatory: At this stage of your cycle you have the most energy, so go for those HIIT workouts, power yoga and more weight classes.
Luteal: After ovulation, we want to start bringing that energy down to support a potential pregnancy. It’s best to continue with gentler workouts such as bodyweight exercises, yoga, walking and swimming.
What are some specific exercises to do when TTC?
Anything that increases blood flow to the pelvis is good for trying to conceive. This includes circular hip movements (like dance or yoga) and inversions (where your hips are higher than your heart) to nourish the pituitary gland and regulate your nervous system. Once blood has been sent to the pituitary gland, this fresh blood flow then carries hormones more easily from the brain to other glands within the body. Another great exercise is walking to keep blood flowing consistently. And finally, anything that you love doing is ideal—joy is such a critical part of the fertility journey, especially if you’ve been trying for some time.
Are there any exercises you shouldn’t do when TTC?
Anything that overly exerts or stresses your system for a long period—such as long distance running, heated yoga classes and impact sports—is best to be avoided when you’re trying to conceive. Your brain will still recognise these activities as stress. And we want to keep stress levels as low as possible.