Move more, lose more…right? It’s a supposed fact of physiology that’s ingrained in us early on: the longer and harder you work out, the more pounds you’ll drop, the fitter you’ll be, and the more energized you’ll feel. But have you ever launched enthusiastically into a high-intensity regimen only to find yourself feeling drained, depleted, and somehow up a pants size?
These effects aren’t in your head and they’re definitely not your fault. I see so many women needlessly suffer and sweat only to see the pounds keep piling on. So what gives? If you’re sick of busting your butt at the gym to no avail, then it’s time you learned why your no-pain-no-gain strategy is hurting your fitness efforts, not helping them. Your hormones play a huge role in how you’ll respond to workouts. Until you understand how to work with your physiology, not against it, you’ll continue to get fed up and frustrated.
Why Your High-Intensity Workout Plan May Be Causing You to Gain Weight
First, let’s break down why extreme exercise can make you — surprise! — gain weight because you’re female. That’s right — while you’ve likely been led to believe your entire life that dropping pounds was a matter of pushing harder for longer in the gym (and suffering the whole time), there’s biological evidence for why this approach is working against you.
When you jump into a hardcore exercise routine in January, it’s important to remember where you’re coming from: a stressful and sugar-laden holiday season that’s compromised your adrenal glands.
When you work out, you burn through the glucose in your bloodstream (which is great). But that process only takes about 30 minutes ; after that first half hour, you’re simply tapping into your adrenal reserve and forcing those glands to pump out cortisol like crazy in order to convert your fat cells into blood sugar.
While that may sound like an appealing prospect, it’s the wrong way to go about fat burning. When you have estrogen overload due to unresolved period and fertility issues (as just about every client I see does), the excess estrogen programs your body to actually convert any circulating sugar back into fat. So instead of becoming a fat burning machine, you become stuck in a vicious cycle of desperately trying to burn stored fat with cortisol only to have your sky-high estrogen send it right back to all the wrong places.
Add In Adrenal Fatigue and Watch the Pounds Pile On
Worse yet, all of this is under the assumption that your adrenals are in tip top shape; if they’re out of whack, the results could be even more disastrous. And guess what’s notorious for knocking the adrenals out of whack: out-of-control stress, boatloads of sugar, and way too much booze — three familiar staples of the overstimulating holiday season. Add to all of this the fact that in the second half of your cycle (your luteal phase), estrogen is out of balance with progesterone, making you more fatigued and putting further strain on your adrenals.
And what happens when your adrenals are wiped out? You produce less cortisol, making it painful to crawl out of bed each morning and next-to-impossible to finish a workout without feeling fatigued (and miserable) to the max. So now you’re exhausted, unmotivated, and holding onto fat for dear life, despite all your best efforts to shed it — and each time you work out thinking you’re doing your body a favor, you’re just reinforcing the same bad cycle.
Exercise Impacts You Differently During Your Cycle
If you’ve subscribed to the “no pain, no gain” workout mentality so many of us are sold on (especially around the New Year), then you’re falling into a predictable trap that’s likely backfiring. The predominant “push-’til-it-hurts” mentality around exercise is entirely rooted in male physiology and a 24-hour circadian rhythm that loses sight of natural, predictable female fluctuations throughout the month. By your very nature, your biochemistry is composed of an ever-changing symphony of hormonal ups and downs; your body simply isn’t the same day in and day out, so why would you constantly put it through the same, hardcore workout routine when it’s begging for something different?
The science is on your side here: research has shown that increased estrogen affects your body’s sensitivity to insulin, and subsequently impacts fat storage and burning. While your hormones may be able to handle more intense exercise in the first half of your cycle, going extra hard in the later luteal phase will only drain your nutritional resources, encourage fat storage, and waste muscle mass.
To add insult to injury and perpetuate the vicious train-drain-and-gain cycle, increasing your cardiovascular efforts requires more calories (during the PMS time when you have more carb cravings or bingeing), which in turn, sabotages your weight loss efforts and leaves you frustrated and running back to the gym to up your cardio yet again. It’s a never-ending losing battle, but there is a way out.
Body Cues that Signal Fat Storage
I want you to use a two-part approach here to help yourself transition away from the conditioning you’ve received via the male-oriented fitness theories that you have to be consistent, go hard, push past your discomfort. Some of that of course is applicable, but it depends where you are in your cycle and where you are in your lifecycle.
The first part of this approach is to simply ask yourself how you’re feeling after a particular workout. Do you feel energized and awesome or drained and depleted? Maybe you’ve never taken the time to take stock of your feelings with this level of detail — after all, we’re typically so busy seeking out quick fixes that we forget to take a moment to dig deep and actually ask ourselves how our choices are affecting our mind, body, and spirit. We’re conditioned to ignore the signals our body tells us and push past pain in the name of “success.”
If you are feeling fatigued and it takes you hours to recover your mood and energy, it’s an excellent indicator from your body that it has used up it’s adrenal and glucose reserves and now your body is going into survival and fat storage mode. Examining your body’s response to exercise will give you invaluable insight into what your body really needs to thrive and allow you to workout smarter not harder.
The second piece is to link how you’re feeling after a workout to where you are in your cycle. This is why understanding how our body works within the context of the female ecosystem is so empowering and liberating; knowing how your biochemistry directly impacts your results will allow you to make smarter, healthier decisions. So if you’re trying to lose weight or improve your fitness but you haven’t gotten where you want to be, you may be frustrated. But by educating yourself on your body’s unique cyclical nature, you can achieve lasting results — no pain required.
Workout Less, Lose More — Seriously
If all this info leaves you feeling ready to throw in the towel completely, I have great news: you can pull the plug on all those painful, fatigue-inducing workouts you dread and actually watch the pounds melt off — by working out for no more than 30 minutes in the second half of your cycle.
Too good to be true? It’s not when you consider this: exercising for more than 30 minutes at a time puts undue stress on your adrenal glands by causing cortisol to rise at first, mixing with your estrogen keeping fat on. If you’re picking up a new year, new workout discipline, mixed with untreated PMS and period problems, you will easily find yourself tired and not losing the weight you had hoped.
Trust me, having been 200 pounds myself, and having tried for years to lose weight before I cracked my WomanCode, I know how frustrating this can be. And of course this is typically when we give up on our new year’s resolutions.
If you’re totally sick of trying, failing, and trying again, then it’s time to ditch what you’ve been doing and try something totally new. Rather than running your adrenals into the ground with hour-long-plus high-intensity training sessions, try 20-minute bouts of cardio or weight training, and longer sessions of more gentle movement like hatha yoga or walking. Not sure when to do which type of activity? No sweat — we’ve got a handy guide for that.
Tracking your body throughout the month is also really helpful, which is just one more reason the MyFLO app should be your new best friend. Keeping tabs on your symptoms will help you get to know how your body functions at different points in your cycle which can help you choose the right kind of exercise for your hormonal phase.
Now that you’ve got the knowledge, you’ve got what it takes to start feeling your fiercest and getting fit once and for all!
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