It’s an unfortunate reality of owning a uterus: Period pain is all too common, affecting as many as 90% of women, according to some estimates. But some people’s period pain—also called dysmenorrhea—becomes severe (“stabbing,” “ripping,” and “walrus-like bloating” are real-life descriptions of what it feels like). Interestingly, new research has identified one healthy habit that might seriously ease this PMS symptom.
While it may sound like the last thing you want to do when you’re feeling so bloated and crampy, spending regular time on the treadmill can decrease period pain and improve your overall quality of life, says the new study published in Contemporary Clinical Trials. In fact, over the course of the seven-month study, women ages 18-43 reported 6% less period pain after just four weeks and 22% less pain after six months of dedicated treadmill use.
"Women who have painful periods often take steps to actively avoid exercise—after all, when you are in pain, it is often the last thing that you want to partake in,” says study author Leica Claydon-Mueller, Ph.D., a senior lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University in England. "However, this trial demonstrated that exercise significantly reduced pain for those people taking part in the program, and they also reported reduced pain levels after four and seven months."
To wit, the women also reaped other benefits of exercise, such as improved functioning on a day-to-day basis.
"These multiple benefits might be considered a 'package deal' by women,” said study author Priya Kannan, Ph.D., of Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Hong Kong. “The evidence supporting the use of aerobic exercise for managing pain, improving quality of life, and improving daily functioning has been strengthened by the findings from this research."
Exercise the Pain Away
Thankfully, you don’t need to pay a personal trainer or get a special note from your doctor to start with your own aerobic exercise program in most cases.
Joining your local gym will give you access to a treadmill—along with other gym equipment and facilities that you may enjoy (and that could potentially help you ease those cramps even more!).
For a basic treadmill workout for beginners, warm up at a walking pace (about 3 mph) for about five minutes, then up your speed—gradually. Certified personal trainer Jill McKay recommends increasing your pace until you’re slightly out of breath for the rest of the workout—if you’re a beginner, stick to anywhere between five and 15 minutes for this portion. Then end with a five-minute cool down at walking pace again.
If you want to up the intensity, try setting the treadmill to an incline for several minutes during your workout, increasing your pace, or extending the workout length.
And while the study specifically focused on workouts on the treadmill, there’s likely a similar benefit to running or walking outdoors as well.
Looking for other period-friendly exercises? Any aerobic exercise will likely do you some good, seeing as research shows that it can cause your body to release pain-busting endorphins, according to Nationwide Children’s Hospital. But if you’re looking for something on the gentler side, put that gym membership to use and see if yours offers yoga classes—or search YouTube for yoga videos you can do from the comfort of your home. Yoga and breathing exercises can bring calm and pain relief during your period, says Nationwide Children’s. Specifically, alternating between the cat and cow poses is one way to help you cope with cramps by stretching out and massaging the back and belly muscles—this video shows you how to do it properly.
Cobra is another yoga pose that can help you ease the pain, according to Nationwide Children’s. To do cobra, lie down on your stomach with your legs straight out and together, then place your hands directly under your shoulders. Then lift your head and shoulders off the ground, using your hands as support. Breathe deeply through the pose for at least 30 seconds, then bring your head and shoulders gently back down to the floor (here’s a handy visual).