How My Relationship With Exercise Changed When I Stopped Getting My Period
In February, my husband and I decided we were ready to start a family, a decision apparently every friend I have on Facebook made nine months ago. I was on the pill and had been for the last 13 years. I read everything I could find on what would happen to me in this post-pill life and was ready for mood swings, cramps to the degree I hadn't experienced in over a decade, and either blowing up like a balloon or dropping a few pounds.
I took the last pill and then...nothing happened. That's OK, though; I'd read it could take a couple of months to regulate to a normal cycle. I carried on with my life as usual as March went by, then April passed. Still no period.
It was time to turn to a professional instead of Dr. Google.
My OB/GYN wasn't shocked, telling me many women take months to get back to a regular cycle; however, I hadn't had any cycle. I live a healthy lifestyle—after all, I'm a certified health coach. I pay attention to what I eat, I don't drink alcohol during the week, I work out, I get at least seven hours of sleep each night, so what gives?
My OB/GYN talked to me about amenorrhea—the lack of menstruation—in which a woman misses three periods in a row. There are natural causes for this: pregnancy, menopause, or if you're breast-feeding; however, I fell into none of these. What I did have was a love of exercise. It's like that old saying goes: I was doing too much of a good thing.
A month before going off the pill I crossed the finish line of my seventh marathon, I set a personal record in the 5K in April, and was heavy strength training either on my own or in a class three times a week. I wasn't showing any signs of overtraining, and my blood work showed numbers my doctor was happy with, but if you aren't getting your period, something isn't right. While it was nice to not have a week of cramping—and save money on tampons—I wanted to get my family started, and this was an essential piece of the puzzle.
I told my doctor how I love to run, and that exercise is a big part of my self-care routine, which she completely understood and supported. She simply explained to me that the intensity and duration of my workouts were most likely causing my amenorrhea (recognized as exercise-induced amenorrhea).
We talked about taking out the interval training and cutting my runs down to the 3- to 5-mile range as opposed to the long runs I was doing each weekend. I wanted to get back to normal more than anything, but I won't lie; I was nervous about cutting back on my workouts!
It's been six months since that appointment, and I am now in a routine of running three times a week, 3 to 4 miles each time, at a steady state pace, and lifting for roughly 30 minutes, two to three times per week. In total, my weekly hours spent training went from around six to three, something I would never have done on my own.
Here's what happened.
My clothes still fit.
It was recommended I put on a few pounds to help get things flowing again (pun intended), which I was ready to do, but cutting back my intensity and volume made me realize how much I linked my workouts to my weight. Although I wasn't trying to lose weight, it became clear that I assumed I'd put on weight and fat after a week of "only" running 10 miles and not feeling completely spent after my workouts.
Instead, my body slowly added about eight comfortable pounds (I attribute a lot of this to upping my calories), and I didn't have to buy any new clothes. This was over the course of a few months, so nothing was instant, and no one could tell but me.
Stress relief became clear.
I knew working out was my stress relief. It's been a steady part of my self-care routine since college, but as I placed higher importance on testing my limits and pushing myself in every workout, the stress relief aspect was a shadow of exercise.
When I started running without paying attention to pace, and going on daily long walks with my dog, it hit me how much moving my body positively affected my mood. I relished the 30-minute runs as a way to reflect on my day instead of staring at my mile splits. I tried new exercises in the weight room and new classes to experience different ways to move my body instead of hitting a certain number of miles or specific strength-training routines.
I separated exercise from what I "should" be doing for my appearance, to what I truly wanted to do for my body and mind.
I stopped tying my feelings and action to workouts.
If I didn't hit the pace I wanted, or only had time for three rounds of a weight circuit instead of my usual four, it affected my mood and the rest of my day. I believed I shouldn't feel tired or sore because I hadn't hit my goal. I didn't deserve a treat because I hadn't "earned" it.
On the flip side, if I did a long run that morning, I could lounge on the couch guilt-free all day, and deserved whatever dessert I wanted, only because I'd gotten a tough workout under my belt. This wasn't a mere calorie-in/calorie-out calculation, but I felt if I worked hard at the gym I earned the right to relax or treat myself to something.
I started prioritizing my friendships.
As a health coach, I always recommend planning your workouts at the start of your week so you ensure they happen. While it is something I still do with this reduced training load—it makes me feel calm to have a plan—I was giving my workouts priority over everything. I had evolved to see my days in workouts: Monday is speed work, Tuesday is run group, Wednesday is Body Blast, etc. This is OK to a degree, but when invited to a spin class with a friend on a day I do interval strength training, or if my husband proposed brunch on Saturday when I'm usually doing my long run, I would nearly always say no because I didn't want to deviate from my routine.
I still have a typical schedule, but I'm much more flexible. Normally on Tuesdays I do a 30-minute run, but there was a Beyoncé-themed spin class that night, so I invited three girlfriends to do that, and it was a blast! Instead of doing the run anyway and having a "bonus" workout, I let that new class be my workout, not worrying if it would be "enough."
This was my experience, and I am in no way saying grueling workouts should never be done. But listening to what your body is telling you should take priority over a stubborn routine. Everyone responds differently to exercise, and what may be too much for one person could be just fine for someone else. After all, elite Olympic marathoners have kids during their running career, something I held on to, thinking it proved endurance running was fine. Then I remembered I'm not an Olympic athlete, and I have no idea what the rest of their wellness routine includes.
By cutting back, I discovered a new relationship with exercise, one that opened up more time and energy for all the other things I love. Exercise is mentally and physically empowering, until it is hampering. Look at what your workouts bring to your life; make sure they empower all areas of your life, not overshadow them.