A step by step fitness guide for women on their TTC journey.
Are you uncertain of the guidelines when it comes to exercise and fertility?
As a person who has focused heavily on helping women exercise throughout pregnancy, I’m honestly shocked that it took me so long before I seriously considered the effects of exercise on fertility. A friend of mine who was also in the fitness industry was going through several pregnancy losses a few years ago, and we both realized at the time that we had big questions about her lifestyle and very few answers. Was she exercising too much? Did she need to approach exercise differently? Was her fitness life related to her fertility problems? All of these questions led to anxiety and uncertainty, and we didn’t know where to turn.
Propelled by this uncertainty, I learned as much as I could about the effects of exercise on fertility. Despite some interesting advances, it’s clear that there is still more research to be done and more questions to be answered. However, it’s exciting that we are starting to understand some underlying principles that can help guide us through our fertility journey. I have provided some guidelines for you here, and hopefully they can help give you some reassurance moving forward.
What is my starting weight?
It turns out that your current weight can heavily influence your fertility, especially if you are either very underweight or very overweight.
- If you are underweight with a low body fat percentage, consider focusing on getting to a healthier weight. Definitely avoid exercising at an energy deficit (burning more calories than you are consuming), and if you do exercise, do it to reduce stress and feel great. Some suggestions? Try yoga or long walks, or even some low-intensity body sculpting, and consider working with a fertility nutritionist to help you achieve your ideal weight and body fat.
- If you are overweight, it’s a good idea to enhance your exercise regimen. This does not mean you should pound your body with high-intensity workouts, but rather increase the time and intensity at a pace that feels great and doesn’t exhaust or deplete you. Again, combining exercise with the right nutrition to reach your goals is a great idea.
How much should I exercise each day?
This turns out to be really important! According to a broad review of research, women who exercise 30 minutes a day have a decreased risk of ovulatory-factor infertility. Women who exercise more than 60 minutes per day, however, experienced increased risk of ovulatory-factor infertility. There is also evidence that women who exercise more than four hours per week are less likely to have a successful live birth after their first cycle of IVF.
When taking all of this information into consideration, you should consider limiting your exercise to 30-60 minutes per day, keeping total exercise to four hours or less per week.
What about the type of exercise?
There is some evidence that high levels of cardiovascular exercise might increase a mother’s risk of adverse perinatal outcomes. There is also evidence from multiple studies that women who engage in excessive exercise are more likely to experience menstrual irregularities (oligomenorrhea, anovulation, and amenorrhea), but it’s important to note that the cause is likely multifactorial in origin. Psychological stress, diet, and current age relative to the age of onset of menstruation (menarche) may all play a role.
Combining cardio in your exercise regimen with sculpting or weight lifting seems to be a good rule of thumb. Also, as stated above, consider sticking to exercise that energizes rather than exhausts you. The type of exercise you choose can be relative to your fitness level. A barre class, for example, could exhaust one person who has never exercised, but could feel less challenging for another person. Pay attention to your body, and do not start something new that’s very intense (like training for a marathon). Yoga, barre, Pilates, and fitness classes that combine cardio with sculpting may be great choices.
Does my past affect my future in all of this?
Yes! Exercise can lead to a more balanced hormone profile, better insulin and endocrine function, improved metabolism, and reduced stress, among other benefits. A study looking at self-reported exercise found that women who exercised regularly in the previous year were more likely to report a clinical pregnancy after IVF treatment.
Research from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology found that strenuous exercise can temporarily reduce fertility, but that this transient reduction went away after women reduced their physical activity up to ten years later. In fact, they were among the women who had the most children later in life. It’s possible that the intensity of their exercise had an immediate negative effect on their fertility, but that their athleticism had a long-term protective effect over time.
Since no exercise (especially in obese or overweight women) can be just as damaging to fertility as too much exercise, these authors recommend maintaining regular exercise in your life, but toning it down if necessary when trying to conceive—again, choosing energizing over exhausting workouts. It seems there is an ideal balance to the right amount of exercise for optimal fertility: not too much and not too little.
Perhaps most important of all…how can I use exercise to feel AMAZING?
In the midst of trying to conceive, it can feel overwhelming to be told to stop exercising, especially if you depend on it for stress reduction or weight control. Take a minute to think about the kind of exercise you love. How can you adapt everything you have learned to adjust this exercise for your fertility goals, but still maintain a routine that feels best for you?
Just because you might need to cut down on the time or degree to which you are exercising, each session can still leave you more energized, more relaxed, and more clear-headed than when you began. Personally, I also recommend taking time to find songs that are motivating and exciting for your workout playlist. Consider recruiting friends to join you for your workouts, a team always helps you get to your goals. These tips will help you think carefully about your exercise schedule and fitness goals. And you will feel happier in the process!
My story and ongoing questions…
My friend with fertility issues ultimately toned down the intensity of her workouts while she tried to conceive, and went on to get pregnant naturally. While it’s not entirely clear that this change was the primary reason she conceived (and not all women have the same kind of success), I would like to think that our fertility education helped contribute to this outcome.
I remain personally committed to finding out the most I can and learning how to be as helpful as possible for women trying to conceive. It’s clear that new studies need to be done and new information is needed to be even more helpful. Plus, there are many women who get pregnant regardless of the intensity of their exercise and how many hours they spend working out. But for those who struggle, it’s great to have some information available that could be helpful. Finding keys to the fertility puzzle for a wide range of women remains one of my biggest goals as a fitness professional.
Until we know more, by all means use the guidelines we know so far and find the activities that make you feel the best you can possibly feel in the midst of an uncertain and often stressful experience. No matter what, you will feel more equipped, more reassured, and stronger moving forward!