It is often the case that, as couples are making the decision to expand their families, they also decide to make personal commitments to improve their overall health. Many people presume that exercising will improve not only their health, but also their fertility. While exercising has many great benefits, unfortunately that is not the complete story. As with other things in life, sometimes too much of a good thing is not really so good at all, including exercise.
Studies have shown that “too much” exercise may actually decrease a woman’s fertility. This applies to women who exercise to the point of lowering their weight levels below the healthy range, and even to women who maintain a normal weight and continue to get regular menstrual cycles.
It is also important to understand, however, that obesity can also lead to lower fertility. To fight obesity, a combination of a healthy diet and moderate exercise is needed. Regular, balanced exercise is known to lower stress, which is particularly important when trying to cope with infertility.
So, the question is this… How much exercise is too much? Some studies have shown that more than seven hours per week of vigorous aerobic exercise has been associated with ovulatory infertility. In women undergoing in vitro fertilization, four or more hours of strenuous exercise weekly over a period of several years has been associated with unsuccessful outcomes. These studies seem to show that too much exercise can impair ovulation.
One possible result of too much exercise is a luteal phase defect. The luteal phase is the time period between ovulation and a woman’s expected period. This time period, also known as the “two week wait,” is normally between 12 and 16 days. Unfortunately, a shorter luteal phase can interfere with getting pregnant. Typically, progesterone levels stay high during this time, allowing a fertilized egg to attach itself to the uterine lining. Lower levels of progesterone are known to interfere with a fertilized egg implanting, which can lead to infertility.
Another potential reason for infertility brought about by over-exercising is that the hormones responsible for regulating the female reproductive system are changed in ways that tamper with ovulation. It is possible that exercise-induced infertility is brought about by changes in leptin levels, a hormone that regulates appetite and metabolism. If your appetite is low, you may not eat enough, which can interfere with regular ovulation.
In considering the eating habits of women who exercise more than 7 hours per week, it is quite possible that they are more likely to restrict their diet. Not eating enough healthy fats, losing weight rapidly, or weighing below the recommended weight guidelines for your height can affect ovulation.
While too much exercise is a problem for some women, there are more women with the opposite problem – not enough exercise, leading possibly to obesity. Research shows that fertility is often impaired when a woman is overweight. The good news is that losing just 10% of your current body weight has been shown to improve fertility in women who are overweight. If your BMI is over 27, and you’re trying to lose weight, you shouldn’t shy away from exercise. Just don’t overdo it.
Exercise has many advantages, and taking control of your body can be uplifting and empowering, especially if you are struggling with infertility. The bottom line is, however, that if you are trying to conceive, and your typical routine involves seven hours or more of strenuous exercise each week, such as running, fast cycling, swimming, or aerobics classes, you may want to cut back. Consider replacing some of your more intense workouts with gentler forms of exercise. For example, instead of taking a high-power aerobics class every day, you can alternate some of your workouts with a casual walk or a yoga class. You’ll still get to enjoy moving your body, but you won’t be overtaxing your system.
The good news is that with a change in your exercise program, you can improve your chances of getting pregnant. If you still have trouble getting pregnant, it may be time to make an appointment with a reproductive specialist. If you are looking to take control of your fertility, make an appointment with one of our compassionate and highly trained infertility doctors. CORM serves the greater Houston area with full-service fertility clinics in Webster and Beaumont. The professional staff at the Center of Reproductive Medicine will work closely with you to choose the most appropriate fertility program for your individual reproductive medical needs.