For many of us, navigating the often unpredictable roller coaster that is our menstrual cycle can come with an unprecedented amount of challenges. And while not all challenges have the same solution, cycle syncing might be the key to instilling some order and routine for your body throughout the different stages of your cycle.
Chances are, you have probably heard of cycle syncing during conversations with friends, colleagues or even on social media. But what actually is cycle syncing, and how does diet and exercise form part of the process? Here, Ali Handley, founder of BodyLove Pilates, answers all our burning questions – from the long-term benefits of cycle syncing to tips on the type of exercise you should be doing along the way.
Not everyone is familiar with cycle syncing, even though it has such significant benefits. Can you start by explaining what it is
There are four phases to a woman’s cycle - Follicular, Ovulation, Luteal & Menstruation. Each phase has a unique hormonal profile and cycle syncing is the adjustment of our lifestyle to support these hormonal changes and fluctuations. The term cycle syncing was first introduced by Alissa Vitti, integrative nutritionist and female hormone expert in her 2014 book Women Code. The goal of cycle syncing is for women to thrive during the month, making changes to the way we work, eat and exercise so we are complimenting and supporting the hormones of each phase.
What are some of the initial and long-term benefits of cycle syncing?
As women, we get very used to suffering and it’s all too common to hear your girlfriends talk about being tired, bloated, skin breakouts, heavy or painful periods, no period and fertility issues. We don’t need to live like this. Our cycle is now considered our 5th vital sign. If there is something not quite right with your cycle it should be addressed as a matter of immediate importance. When you start to live in flow with your cycle, making the lifestyle adjustments needed to compliment the hormonal changes throughout the month you will feel more energized, it can positively impact your sleep, your appetite and metabolism, your workouts will be more effective, less mood swings, nausea and pain and importantly as women, and potential future mothers, a nourished, balanced cycle impacts your fertility. Oh, and how does a better sex life sound?
So, you’re interested in cycle syncing – where and how do you begin?
The first step in cycle syncing is to track your cycle. There are so many apps out there that can be easily downloaded onto your phone to help you better understand and familiarise yourself with your unique cycle. Every woman is different and if you plan on making lifestyle changes for the different phases of the cycle, you need to get to know yours. Once you have begun tracking your cycle it’s important to understand each phase so you can exercise and eat to compliment the fluctuations. Cycle tracking can take around 3 months to get right and remember if you are on birth control, this will impact ovulation and hormone balance throughout the month.
Exercise is one of the key components that is implicated in the process. Why is adapting our exercise regime so crucial to cycle syncing?
We want our exercise routine to complement the unique hormonal profile of each phase and it’s important as women that we listen to what our bodies are telling us in order to reap the benefits of all the hard work. Unlike women, men are on a rinse and repeat 24 hour hormonal cycle, in which doing an intense HIIT workout early each morning is optimal. As women, this style of workout is only advised in the later stages of our follicular phase and during ovulation. At any other phase of the cycle, this intense style of exercise can impact the balance of our hormones and the benefits of gaining lean muscle and weight loss, become negatives and have the opposite effect.
Can you tell me a little bit about your approach to cycle syncing workouts and how Pilates assists with this?
Over the past year I have read widely to understand my body better, which has been an important first step. I suggest reading authors such as Alissa Vitti and Lara Briden who are pioneers in this space and have done incredible research so we can understand and support ourselves better. When it comes to exercise I want women to nourish their bodies with mindful exercise that compliments your cycle. Exercise should never be your punishment, it is always your reward. The wonderful thing about the progressive form of Pilates we teach at Bodylove is that our schedule offers the kind of variety our cycles require. We have intense cardio classes you can take during ovulation, as well as Yoga and Stretch for when you have your period.
There are classes first thing in the morning for the early phase of your cycle, and loads of evening classes for the later. It’s this kind of variety that gives women options so they can live in flow with their hormones and not against them. 12 months ago I introduced breathwork to the beginning and end of every single workout at Bodylove. By book ending every movement practice like this, we are not only giving our clients an opportunity to check in with themselves, bringing awareness to how they are feeling today, but we are giving them permission to slow down, and by simply practicing guided nasal breath work, we are nourishing the nervous system which is intricately connected to all the systems of our bodies, including our repropduction system. It is a very important and loved part of the Bodylove method.
What’s the most common misconception people have about cycle syncing?
We all put up barriers to change. The idea of making lifestyle adjustments can be daunting. The changes required though are often very subtle but can have a huge impact. The small shift in your energy that creates a tsunami of postive benefits!
There are four menstrual cycle phases. Can you tell me a little bit about each phase and the type of exercise we should be doing to compliment?
The first phase of your cycle is called the Follicular stage, which follows menstruation and goes from around Day 5-14. During this phase you will feel a growing sense of energy so use it. Estrogen is on the rise and so is your energy! Your hormonal profile supports workouts in the middle of day and you can consider strength training and adding lots of cardio in your workouts - Reformer and mat Pilates, Running, Barre.
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Ok ladies time to shine! The second phase is called the Ovulatory stage which goes for around 2 days in the middle of your cycle on Days 15/16. You are glowing and your hormones are supporting the most intense style of workouts. Get up early and go for it - HIIT style workouts, Cardio Reformer classes, and Spin.
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The Luteal phase is the third and longest stage of your cycle and goes from around Day 16 until menstruation which is usually on Day 28/30. There are loads of hormonal changes that occur over this long stage so it’s recommended you make shifts as you progress through it. In the early Luteal stage you can continue to workout early in the day and as you get closer to your period move to early evening to support the internal shifts. It’s time to stop the intense workouts and instead slow down your workouts to include more endurance exercise, stability movement practices such as Pilates and Yoga that place less stress on the body - Reformer Pilates, Barre, Yoga, Power Walking.
Finally the Menstrual phase symbolises both the end of your cycle and the beginning of a new one is from Day 1-5. Time to slow down your workouts or even just rest. Exercises increases blood flow, so a gentle form of movement can absolutely decrease cramps and pain, but just listen to your body and what it is telling you. You are more likely to injure yourself so gentle mat pilates and restorative yoga, walking or just Netflix and chill is recommended.