How your cycle may affect your body perception and body satisfaction and how to use this information to make empowered choices that better support your health and/or physique goals (rather than sabotage) them this year!
As a health and fitness coach I’ve worked with a lot of women that have struggled with low body satisfaction and a turbulent relationship with the scale.
“Bad body days” have often been the culprit behind clients losing faith in the process when they’ve seen the scale weight go up or felt particularly dissatisfied with their body one day despite feeling really positive about it the week before. They then revert back to old habits due to feeling momentarily discouraged (“it’s not working, so what’s the point!”).
After going (what they perceive to be as) “off track” or “being bad” they may experience another layer of distressing guilt or shame and as a response the following day or week, over-restrict or over exercise as a way to the “make up for it”.
I’ve come to learn a lot about the physiological and psychological changes a women’s body undergoes throughout her cycle that impact her weight, self-perception and emotional wellbeing as a result.
So, I thought it important to bring increased awareness to these factors and how they might be impacting your ability to adhere to a new “healthy” diet or a training program long enough to see a change, or how they might be disguising progress and perpetuating a negative relationship with food, exercise and your body.
If your currently caught up in the midst of “diet culture” it might be further causing you to engage in maladaptive food and exercise practices rather than more positive ones that revolve around respect, appreciation or nourishment of your body.
Or if you’re amongst the many coming out the ass-end of diet culture with a desire to improve your body image without changing your physique, with aspirations to “love yourself” as you are, you may have experienced situations where you have only felt twice the shame on days you just can’t seem to do that.
Understanding when you might experience increased negative body-related thoughts, or when the scale might go up as a result of where you’re at in your cycle you can start to respond to these thoughts and situations from a place of awareness and NEUTRALITY.
NEUTRALITY that may allow you to improve your relationship with your body, food and exercise, or better adhere to a diet or exercise regime for physique transformation related reasons.
With knowledge comes awareness, with awareness comes solutions!
It is undeniable that the cyclic hormonal changes that regulate the menstrual cycle are an important biological influence on the female body, with numerous physical and emotional effects.Miranda A. Farage, PhD, Sallie Neill, MD, and Allan B. MacLean, MD
So, first here’s an explanation of the ways in which studies are starting to develop a picture of how certain phases of our menstrual cycle may affect us physiologically and psychologically.
I say “starting” as this is still a very under-researched area, but there are some trends starting to appear as well as some strong anecdotal evidence to support to back them up.
Carr-Nangle et al. found correlations between higher body dissatisfaction i.e., more negative body-related thoughts and higher anxiety over appearance with physiological changes such as water retention and abdominal swelling linked with inaccuracies in body perception in both premenstrual and menstrual phases.
Table 1. Carr-Nangle et al.
Teixeira et al. had similar findings with participants displaying an increase in negative body thoughts or perceptions during the pre-menstrual and menstrual phase despite there being no actual significant changes in body composition or measurements as well.
Psychological changes such as negative affect, autonomic reaction and control, and impaired concentration were shown in participants in the premenstrual phase in particular.
Negative affect (emotional/psychological distress) and an impaired ability to manage and control your response to stressors, could be a trigger for some to hyper-fixate on their body and seek out control through potentially over restrictive food or exercise habits.
Not discussed in the studies, but decreased cognitive function could also reduce your mental capacity to make food or exercise choices that are more in line with your goals during certain phases.
While you might be thinking “no-duh! I’m already aware of these things!”
If you don’t track your cycle these symptoms might be more likely to sneak up on you and therefore you might not be ready to take a step back in the moment to separate yourself from these thoughts and feelings (which aren’t always accurate) in order to better manage how you respond or choose to act on them.
It can be hard to view these thoughts and feelings neutrally, and to respond to them compassionately in the thick of it while you’re experiencing them. They often become clearer retrospectively once you’ve got your period (“oh, that explains it!”). Which leads me to my first recommended step:
TRACK YOUR CYCLE
Track your cycle using a spreadsheet or an app (i.e. Flo or Wild.AI) for at least three months journalling or making notes alongside it on your mood, body perception, satisfaction, energy levels, sleep quality, scale weight cognitive and physical performance throughout the phases of your cycle to help distinguish some common patterns across certain phases of your cycle.
“If you’re someone who struggles taking rest days, you might find this new-found awareness helpful so weeks that feel harder, or when you feel compelled (or NEED) to rest or pull it back you don’t view it as a character flaw, but a result of the natural ebbs and flows of your cycle.”
Despite some trends revealing themselves, studies do show that cycle lengths and experiences (physiologically and psychologically) during certain phases, can be very unique to the individual. So, it’s important to take the time to develop an understanding of how yours specifically affects you.
Understanding and feeling prepared for these experiences empowered me in my own diet phase/s:
When my weight would trend upwards towards week 3 and 4 of my cycle, I understood why this was happening and therefore don’t feel the need to panic, change my strategy or throw in the towel.
When I have days where I feel more hyper-aware of my appearance, I can acknowledge these feelings without letting them impact how I act or “show up”.
Being a coach/PT, when I’m PMS-ing I can feel extra aware of how people *might* perceive my appearance or performance, especially in relation to my career choice.
Sometimes I intentionally still choose to wear the tight-fitting clothes, a crop or a sports bra I want to wear as an intentional “F-U” to these feelings, your belly in all its forms and phases is allowed to occupy space in the gym!!
Other times, I might prefer to wear something baggier if I just want to feel more comfortable or I am not quite feeling as ‘brave’ on a particular day.
I’m not tempted to dramatically change my exercise routine potentially taking me away from types of activities i.e. strength focused training that I enjoy, or let it stop me from taking a much-needed deload week in a busy gym, despite feeling like I might be judged for not being able to “lift heavy” “enough” as a coach.
All because I can anticipate them and take a figurative mental step back when they arise and view these feelings and thoughts for what they really are – fleeting and ultimately unhelpful!
“How can you eat to nourish and show respect for your body through all its phases, acknowledging that you don’t need to “love your body” from every angle, in every outfit, every day of the month, in every lighting and that feeling a certain way towards your body in one particular moment doesn’t have to dictate how you choose to act or not act.”
Step 2: Once you’ve created some connections between your cycle phases and your mood, emotional wellbeing, energy etc. you can start putting some plans in place in order to prepare yourself for them.
On the week/s you know you’re more likely to feel “flat” and un-enthusiastic when it comes to training, less motivated and more self-conscious you’ll be able to treat yourself more compassionately knowing that one week a month where you don’t feel so shit-hot or your performance may drop, and feel reassured that it’s NOT 100% reflective of your overall progress or a sign of “going backwards” or stalling.
And instead show up anyway, wearing something you feel comfortable in (or whatever you damn want to wear) and use the time to hone your technique, maybe giving yourself permission to drop a set or weight, rather than loading up or going “balls to the wall”, setting a distance or time if you’re doing something cardio-based that’ll feel “easier” allowing you to recover well, and come back stronger again the following week or month.
If you’re someone who struggles taking rest days, you might find this new-found awareness helpful so weeks that feel harder, or when you feel compelled (or NEED) to rest or pull it back you don’t view it as a character flaw, but a result of the natural ebbs and flows of your cycle.
Learning how to work with your body rather than against it, understanding its needs better, might actually help take your performance to new levels, or even better help you appreciate your body for things beyond what it looks like or performs like.
Practicing showing up even when you have a lapse of faith in “the process”, not to burn calories, or to hit a PB to prove something to someone else (who’s probably not even paying any attention to you), or to work off last night’s late-night snack, but showing up because moving makes you feel good afterwards even if you don’t feel motivated when you walk in. A reminder that exercise has its benefits beyond whether the scale weight drops this week.
When negative body thoughts seep in you’ll feel less compelled to dramatically restrict your food or conversely throw in the towel and more inclined to ask “how can I take care of my body at this time?”. What nutrition, hydration or meal preparation strategies can you implement to insure you have your premenstrual environment set up to better support yourself during this time?
Side bar: If you struggle with cravings or a sweet tooth, particularly before or on your period you may find this blog helpful:https://kaylamadefitness.wordpress.com/2022/02/25/is-your-uncontrollable-sweet-tooth-sabotaging-your-weight-loss-goals/: Body image and your cycle
How can you eat to nourish and show respect for your body through all its phases, acknowledging that you don’t need to “love your body” from every angle, in every outfit, every day of the month in every lighting and that feeling a certain way towards your body in one particular moment doesn’t have to dictate how you choose to act or not act.
That you are not flawed and that your body is inherently worthy of respect and care and that how you choose to eat, and move can be an extension and expression of these two things.
If you want to know more about how to eat, train or “move” to support your goals while working WITH your body rather than against it throughout your cycle…
If you want to feel confident in your clothes, and feel like a bad-ass in the gym…
If you’re fed up with fads, and want to break out of the toxic, all or nothing cycle you have with food and exercise…
If you’d love to receive compassionate accountability and personalised guidance in the pursuit of your goals with the support of an educated, experienced coach with an objective perspective…
Fill out the link below here to book an appointment to see if we’d make a good fit!
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Please note, I am not a registered dietician or a body image/ED specific therapist/ therapist. In situations involving diagnosed or possible pre-diagnosed eating disorders or certain mental health conditions it’s best to see your doctor or relevant medical practitioner for advice/for a referral to the appropriate source of guidance.
Bull, J.R., Rowland, S.P., Scherwitzl, E.B. et al. Real-world menstrual cycle characteristics of more than 600,000 menstrual cycles. npj Digit. Med. 2, 83 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41746-019-0152-7
Carr-Nangle, R.E., Johnson, W.G., Bergeron, K.C. and Nangle, D.W. (1994), Body image changes over the menstrual cycle in normal women. Int. J. Eat. Disord., 16: 267-273. https://doi.org/10.1002/1098-108X(199411)16:3<267::AID-EAT2260160307>3.0.CO;2-Y
Miranda A.F., PhD, Neill, S., MD, and MacLean, A.B. et al. MD. Physiological Changes Associated with the Menstrual Cycle: A Review. Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, volume 64, Number 1 OBSTETRICAL AND GYNECOLOGICAL SURVEY Copyright © 2009
Sarah Romans, Rose Clarkson, Gillian Einstein, Michele Petrovic, Donna Stewart,
Mood and the Menstrual Cycle: A Review of Prospective Data Studies,
Gender Medicine, Volume 9, Issue 5, 2012, Pages 361-384, ISSN 1550-8579, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.genm.2012.07.003.
Teixeira, A. L. S., Damasceno, V. O., Dias, M. R. C., Lamounier, J. A., & Gardner, R. M. (2013). Association between Different Phases of Menstrual Cycle and Body Image Measures of Perceived Size, Ideal Size, and Body Dissatisfaction. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 117(3), 892–902. https://doi.org/10.2466/24.27.PMS.117x31z1