Exercise and Fertility: Is There Really a Link?

June 4, 2021Bríd Ní Dhonnabháin

We all have different feelings about exercise. Some of us can’t go a day without it and some of us simply can’t bear it. Whichever team you’re on, there’s no denying that exercise comes with health benefits and some of these benefits extend to your fertility. At the same time, too much exercise can be damaging and finding the right balance for you can be difficult. So we’re here to break down the important bits and help you on your way. 

The link between exercise and fertility

The health benefits of exercise are too many to mention. It affects every system in your body from your cardiac system, your digestion and even your bone health. It would be unfair if your reproductive system didn’t get a share of the health kick you get from your chosen exercise regime but thankfully, it does. There is more and more evidence emerging that physical activity and exercise can improve reproductive health and pregnancy rates (1). 

What are the benefits? 

Some fertility benefits to exercise might be indirect but they are helpful nonetheless. People with a high BMI and elevated blood sugars are known to be at greater risk of fertility challenges. Insulin resistance can affect the maturation of your eggs and inhibit ovulation. It also shifts the balance of sex hormones to produce more testosterone and reduce estrogen levels, disrupting normal fertility (2). Fortunately, regular exercise decreases abdominal fat, blood sugar, and insulin resistance (3). It also increases sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG), a protein that regulates the amount of testosterone in your tissues (4).c

Many studies report that exercise improves menstrual cycle abnormalities including premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and dysmenorrhoea, or period pain (5), as well as reducing the risk of anovulation, a failure to ovulate (6). Exercise is also known to reduce stress and improve self-esteem. You can learn more about the relationship between stress and fertility here

Pregnancy puts a strain on the body and people who are more fit and flexible going into it,  should have an easier time adjusting to the associated changes. 

What kind of exercise should I be doing and how often should I be doing it?

Exercise is categorised into three different intensity levels: low, moderate, and vigorous.

We all do some bit of low-intensity exercise, whether that’s doing the housework, carrying the shopping or strolling to the bus. Other examples are beginners yoga, tai chi or a casual walk. You can make any of these moderate exercises by upping the pace. Moderate exercise can be thought of as anything that raises your heart rate and makes you breathe faster, but not so much that you’re unable to speak without taking a breather. Any activity that makes your breathing harder and faster would fall into the vigorous exercise category. Examples include running, rowing, high-intensity interval training and spinning. 

There are also different types of exercise: cardiovascular/aerobic, strength, and flexibility, and balance:

  • Cardiovascular or aerobic exercise is the most beneficial for your heart and blood vessels. It gets your heart beating faster and increases blood flow to your muscles. Cardio fitness lowers blood pressure, regulates weight, blood sugars, and sleep boosts mood and strengthens your immune system, all of which will have knock-on benefits to your reproductive health. Brisk walking, running, swimming and cycling all fall into the cardiovascular or aerobic exercise category. 
  • Strength training will better protect your bone and muscle health. It will make you stronger and help you to develop better body mechanics. Strength training isn’t all about bulking up, using weights and going to the gym. You can start strength training using just your body weight at home or outside.
  • Flexibility and balance will help avoid injury and lower your risk of falling. Both can be practised with a stretching, yoga or pilates routine. Yoga and pilates are also forms of strength training. If you plan on getting pregnant, strength and flexibility will help your body to adjust to the changes that come with pregnancy.

The NHS recommends 150 minutes of moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity a week. Cardiovascular exercises are important but try to get at least two strength-training sessions in a week. As a general rule, try and aim for 30 minutes of moderate physical activity a day. 

If you’ve always been active you can continue your usual training regime at the same level to maintain your health. If you’re new to exercise or you’ve taken a long break from fitness, start to build up your level of activity, starting with low to moderate intensity exercises. Or, if you just don’t feel like doing a high-intensity workout today, then don’t do one. Start with some slow exercises, or try some yoga to help calm your mind. 

Finding time for exercise

Our lives today have hectic schedules and exercise isn’t at the top of everyone’s priority list. If you can’t squeeze in a training session, remember that some exercise is better than none. Ask a colleague to join you for a 10-minute brisk walk at lunchtime, take the stairs instead of the lift or consider getting off a stop early on your work commute. 

NHS approved apps for managing and mapping your progress will help you with time management and finding the right exercise regime for you.

Accessibility and affordability

Exercise has never been more accessible. Gyms and fancy equipment can come with a hefty price tag but if you’re watching your wallet you don’t have to compromise your fitness. It won’t cost you to walk around a nearby park with a friend or neighbour and thanks to a boom in online fitness classes, you’ll find all kinds of exercise classes for free on Youtube, whether you’re an absolute beginner or a seasoned athlete. If you are looking for a more social experience, many community centres offer free or reduced-cost classes. Find more information about your local community centre here

Can I exercise too much? 

A small number of women, such as competitive athletes, may experience fertility issues as a result of too much vigorous exercise. Having very low body fat and BMI and stop you from releasing an egg each month by interrupting the pathways leading to ovulation. This is known as hypothalamic amenorrhoea. You can read more about hypothalamic amenorrhoea and signs to look out for here

If excessive exercise is affecting your ability to get pregnant, you may be advised to cut your exercise. Speak to your GP for more information. 

If you’d like to know more about your fertility, or have any questions about your overall hormone health, we’d love to help you out. Our at-home hormone tests can give you an insight into your ovulation, and highlight any red flags relating to fertility. But at Hertility, we don’t believe in giving you the results without the rest. Our team of experts include fertility experts that can help you create an actionable plan to optimise your fertility.

Trusted Resources

(1) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31304974/ 

(2) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4223443/ 

(3) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4625541/ 

(4) https://breast-cancer-research.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13058-015-0647-3 

(5) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2662100/ 
(6) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28035585/

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