When you’re trying to start a family, there are many ways to look after your reproductive health. Among the most useful lifestyle changes is switching up your exercise routine.
A large body of research shows that working out regularly can significantly impact fertility. For example, a systematic review of studies published in Sports Medicine in 2017 found that doing 30 to 60 minutes of vigorous exercise daily was associated with a reduced risk of anovulatory infertility. Also called anovulation, this is when your ovary doesn’t release an egg during a menstrual cycle, and it accounts for approximately 30 percent of female infertility cases.
At the same time, regularly engaging in strenuous exercise for longer than 60 minutes per day can lead to overtraining syndrome, a condition that exhausts your nervous system and increases the chances of infertility in women, reports the Carolinas Fertility Institute.
The key? Striking a balance. We spoke with reproductive health experts about exercise strategies you can use to boost fertility when you’re working to get pregnant.
Are there specific exercises that increase fertility?
Whether you’re into rowing or Pilates, the best fitness regimen is the one you like enough to do consistently. “Engaging in a regular exercise routine can be beneficial for fertility since exercise can help reduce stress levels, promote weight loss if overweight, and improve blood circulation,” says Alex Robles, MD, of Columbia University Fertility Center. “Any exercise you find enjoyable might be helpful.” It’s less about the type of workout you do, and more about making physical activity a constant in your life.
What’s the optimal intensity for reproductive health?
As helpful as bringing daily movement into your life can be, repeatedly exercising to the point of exhaustion can actually increase your risk of infertility. A systematic review published in Sports Medicine in 2017 found that doing aerobic exercise (like running or swimming) for seven-plus hours per week can increase the risk of ovulation problems.
“Extreme exercise can backfire and cause negative outcomes in reproductive health,” says Cynthia Murdock, MD, a partner in reproductive endocrinology at Illume Fertility. “Women who exercise excessively may experience amenorrhea (the absence of a menstrual period) or have a very low body mass index, both of which are bad for fertility.”
Instead, listen to your body and adjust your workouts, stopping before you feel like you’ve done too much.
Be sure you’re appropriately fueling any exercise
No matter how much you’re working out, you need to be eating enough to fuel each session. Burning more calories than you’re taking in can lead to the female athlete triad: menstrual dysfunction, low energy, and decreased bone mineral density.
“The female athlete triad adversely affects fertility by disrupting the hormones needed for ovulation,” says Robles. “It’s important for women to ensure they’re eating enough calories to support their activity levels.”
What to do if you’re undergoing fertility treatments
If you’re currently doing fertility treatments like in vitro fertilization (IVF), ask your doctor about their recommendations for exercise during your treatment cycle. They might suggest you avoid high-impact workouts.
“High impact and contact sports while undergoing fertility treatment may cause the ovary to spin on its pedicle,” explains Karenne Fru, MD, PhD, a fertility specialist with OMA Fertility. “This is referred to as ovarian torsion.” She suggests focusing on lower impact workouts, like cycling or walking, and only engaging in higher impact activities when the ovaries are unstimulated and normal size.
Additionally, you might want to bring down the intensity. Doing strenuous activity for four or more hours weekly may reduce IVF success rates, according to a 2016 study published in Reproductive BioMedicine Online.
Make exercise one part of a well-rounded strategy
Exercise alone isn’t a panacea for improving your reproductive health. But maintaining a consistent fitness routine combined with other healthy lifestyle habits—such as proper nutrition, sleeping well, managing stress, and avoiding smoking and alcohol—can elevate your chances of conception.