Exercise and fertility – what do I need to know?

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Fertility (and infertility) are huge topics at the moment, with an estimated one-in-six couples experiencing fertility issues.

It is an extremely personal and sensitive subject for both men & women – and in spite of past assumptions, infertility affects as many men as it does women.

In my role as a Personal Trainer and Fitness Instructor, I have worked with many clients who are at some stage of their fertility journey – be it managing a pre-existing condition such as PCOS, to planning and preparing for a pregnancy, to various points on the many fertility channels that are out there at the moment.

And because of this experience, I’m often asked about what are the best options fitness-wise for managing conditions such as PCOS and to help improve the chances of becoming pregnant – or sometimes more importantly, what not to do.

In this blog series, I’m going to cover as many areas as possible with regards to Fitness for Fertility & PCOS.

And in today’s blog, I’m going to look at the basics – that is, what is the relationship between fitness/exercise and fertility, and how a suitable exercise routine can be beneficial for fertility, especially when it is tailored for your goal (i.e. pregnancy) using the FITT principals (Frequency, Intensity, Time, Type).

To start, we have some of the obvious benefits of exercise with relation to planning pregnancy – these are weight management, exercise is “good for the head” and can help manage stress, exercise helps to improve overall health, and being active also helps to reduce the risk of things like gestational diabetes in pregnancy….

However, there are also some more in-depth effects of exercise on fertility which I’m going to go through here, with particular focus on female fertility and the management of PCOS.

Exercise helps to manage insulin sensitivity. 
Insulin is an important hormone that assists the body in processing glucose to energy. It is produced in the pancreas and forms the basis of a complicated ecosystem of hormones in the body that regulate – among other things – fertility. Some people can develop a condition called insulin resistance (this is common in PCOS sufferers), which happens when cells in the body no longer respond normally to insulin, causing the body to produce excess insulin. This can have a detrimental effect on fertility as an increase in insulin can eventually result in an increase in the hormone testosterone. Testosterone can halt ovulation and essentially inhibit fertility.

This is not a final prognosis however – in many cases, lifestyle changes can have a positive impact. As well as addressing diet, regular exercise is very helpful in addressing insulin resistance. In particular, a combination of cardio exercise and resistance training to build muscle is really beneficial in this case.

Exercise can help to decrease estrogen dominance through stress management
Estrogen dominance occurs when there’s too much of the female sex hormone, estrogen, floating around in your bloodstream. In simple terms, the primary role of estrogen is to promote growth and development. Estrogen works with the hormone progesterone to promote fertility. Estrogen dominance is becoming an increasingly common health condition due to exposure to estrogen in our environment (more about that another day). You can also experience estrogen dominance if you have low progesterone levels (one of the causes of which can actually be excessive exercise). There are a number of ways to address estrogen dominance, and one of these is gentle exercise to help and manage stress (which impacts our delicate hormone balance).

Exercise can help improve sleep
In today’s busy and stressful lifestyles, many of us are mentally stressed and exhausted but at the same time physically static. That means we feel exhausted at the end of the day but we have not worked our bodies physically. This can often impact our sleep and something called our circadian rhythm. When our sleep is below par, our bodies can respond by producing cortisol. Erratic cortisol levels are damaging to our fertility because it leads to immune, digestive and reproductive suppression. It also affects the hormone conversion pathway that is used to synthesise the sex hormones because the body favours the production of stress hormones as they are necessary for our survival. If this is left unmanned long-term, it can cause infertility. In this case, exercise has two-fold benefits. Number one, it can help by making us physically tired, which helps us to have a more regular sleep pattern. We can also use exercise as a healthy way to manage daily stresses, and to have some “me-time”, which is also hugely beneficial when it comes to fertility.

Exercise improves body composition (vs weightloss)
In particular in women with PCOS, weight loss can be a very difficult task. Weight can tend to “stick” and is not lost as easily as it is for those who are non-polycystic.
However, improving body composition (that is, the percentages of body fat and muscle mass in the body) can help remove this weight loss burden and focus more on improving muscle mass and reducing body fat. If a person’s body fat percentage is too high (or too low for that matter), the body may not produce enough concentrations of progesterone, and this negatively impacts fertility. So with a combination of diet and the correct exercise, it’s possible to redress the balance and improve body composition.

Exercise improves libido 😉
Now here comes the non-PG bit.
At the end of the day, you can be as fertile as your one in Kate Plus Eight – if you’re not getting jiggy with it, then you can’t get pregnant.
And this is not always as easy as we’d like. Fertility problems, body image, busy schedules, and too much Netflix (without the Chill) can cause our libidos to be less than optimal. And this is where exercise can have another positive effect on our fertility. There have been numerous studies done on the impact of exercise on libido (both for men and women), and it’s been discovered that the effect is both physiological as well as psychological. This is because exercise can:

  • Improve self-image, making us feel more comfortable in our own skin – and dare I say it, feel more attractive
  • Increase the blood flow not only to the brain, but also to the genital area. And this should have the desired effect on libido 😉
  • Release endorphins – these are the well known “feel good” hormones that make us feel fantastic and can increase our arousal
  • Improve our general strength & endurance, which can give us a little more staying power
  • Help to increase our body awareness – we get more tuned in to our bodies, how they feel, what our body is capable of. And this of course can give us a boost in the libido department

So as you see, there are many benefits to exercising when it comes to improving fertility and managing PCOS.
These are general guidelines that I apply when working with clients who want to manage their PCOS or want to get pregnant and continue exercising. However, every person is different so I always assess and monitor clients on an individual basic, and work with any advice given from medical or holistic professionals who work with my clients. So always discuss your planned exercise regime with your trainer if you want to optimise your exercise for fertility.
If you’d like to learn more, feel free to attend our Workshop on Monday, Nov 27th at 7pm in Galway.
Tickets are available on Eventbrite.


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