By Beth Heller, M.S.
Spring is coming and this time of year our minds turn inevitably to swimsuits, sleeveless sundresses and bare skin - when we're not thinking about babies, that is. Body conscious times like this can create additional stress for those of us who are trying to conceive. Many of us have given up exercise during our fertility journey, the fertility medications and emotional ups and downs that accompany treatment may have helped us gain a few pounds and our body image may be less-than-fabulous. The good news is that a fit, toned body is not out of the question when we're trying to conceive. We just need to be smart about it.
At Pulling Down the Moon we use a sort of decision tree to help women find an exercise regimen that's right for them:
1. How close are you to your ideal bodyweight?
Body weight can play a major role in our fertility. According to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine about 12% of infertility is related to weight - 6% of cases due to underweight, where a woman's body is too lean for proper hormone function, and 6% due to overweight, where excesses of estrogen-producing adipose tissue (fat) disrupts hormonal balance. For women who are close to their optimal weight, an exercise program should serve to reduce stress, develop/maintain strength and keep the heart healthy. Women who need to lose weight should set goals to increase daily activity levels significantly through a program of low impact cardiovascular exercise, strength training and stress reduction activities such as yoga. If you're not sure about your ideal weight, a consultation with one of our nutritionists is a great place to start.
2. What role has exercise played in your life up to this point?
Some women have a less-than-healthy relationship with physical exercise. Some may hate it and struggle to fit it in to their day. Chronic under-exercise can make it hard to maintain a healthy body weight or may contribute to sluggishness and depression. On the flip side, there are those of us who train hard every day, use exercise to maintain an "ideal" body weight or feel anxious when exercise is limited. Chronic over-exercise can raise levels of the stress hormone cortisol as well as negatively affect the function of the hypothalamic-pituitary-ovarian axis (the hormonal system that governs reproductive function). Your relationship with exercise will dictate whether you need to slow down or speed up.
Once we know the answers to the questions above, we can begin to make recommendations. In general, a fertility-friendly exercise program should include cardiovascular exercise that is low-impact and low to medium intensity, which means keeping our heart rate under 60% of max. Exercise modalities like strength-training are also fabulous when you're trying to conceive. Strength training increases lean muscle mass and helps us keep our bodies strong and shapely (although we need to be careful here - a body fat percentage of at least 22% is generally accepted as necessary for a regular menstrual cycle). In addition to looking good, lean mass means increases metabolism and builds stronger bones. Yoga is another must-try for those who are trying to conceive. The yoga asanas increase strength, improve our flexibility and help to balance our hormones. Yoga has been proven to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol and in yoga physiology its believed that specific yoga postures can be used to increase the flow of blood and life energy (prana) to reproductive organs.
So get out and exercise this spring, but exercise wisely. For some of us, this will mean increasing our exercise levels, and for others it will mean slowing down - and some of us will find that what we're doing is just right. Remember, this is not the time to try and get ripped, drop your body fat percentage to "Hollywood" standards or train for a marathon. A fertility-friendly exercise program will leave you feeling nourished and relaxed.