What you should've learned in sex education, and why it matters that you learn it now.
I didn't begin my career in fitness or the holistic health coaching realm (over fourteen years ago) being conscious of my hormones. In fact, the word "hormones" or "female physiology" weren't even on my radar and there was certainly no delineation between men and women, and how we should be approaching exercise, nutrition or even lifestyle with differing approaches based on their physiology.
This is, in part, due to the fact that a vast majority of the exercise physiology and nutrition studies (then and still) are done on college-aged or obese men. The “results” are then blanketed to work for everyone - including both male + female biology, (even though they were only done on men) - and then circulated in mainstream media as “the best ways to workout” or the "best diets".
The stark reality, however, is that following this advice not only leaves women frustrated with lack of results, but can actually perpetuate the opposite impact - creating the very symptoms that women are trying to avoid by working out or "eating right" / dieting in the first place (like weight gain + muscle loss).
And why, for clarity, don’t studies, exercise + nutrition programs that work on men apply to women? Because women are not small men, and your hormones follow a completely different rhythm that drives the need to shift your workouts + food not only throughout the menstrual cycle, but throughout your lifetime.
I can also tell you that the vast majority of fitness industry (and even nutrition) education excludes specifics on training women versus men, so most trainers + instructors out there aren’t educated on this either. This results in a significant number of women that are either burning out their bodies + hormones (the impacts of which “catch up” with you during your late 30s + 40s when what you’ve “been doing” suddenly isn’t working anymore) or getting suboptimal or zero results for the efforts they’re putting in. It also creates a lot of shaming, blaming + criticism of women’s bodies (by trainers or exercisers) for not getting the same results as men doing similar types of exercise.
And to be clear, when I say "results", I'm speaking in part to physical results because most women come to exercise and diet with certain expectations and goals. Unknowingly working against your hormones will make reaching these virtually impossible. I think it's important to understand this so that you can know that there's nothing wrong with you or your body. You just haven't been taught how to best support her, and that's not your fault. But more / most importantly, I'm speaking to energetic "results" - aka how you feel - in your body and about your body. That matters far more, in the long-term and with any goals you have.
This is one of the many reasons, that since learning about female physiology in 2015, it's become an integral part of my business, to the degree that I know where every single one of my clients are in their menstrual cycle before each session begins and/or hormonal life season. And this is a crucial part of our work together so that what we do not only works, but it sticks.
So why is it important to differentiate between male and female physiology?
Simple answer: because when you don't, you're likely unconsciously working against your body.
Meaning all the effort, time, thought and practices that you put in place to optimize your health and/or feel your best will at best, fall flat. At worst, it may create the very conditions you're trying to avoid - like weight gain, hormone dysfunction, infertility, increased stress or anxiety, mood swings, brain fog, fatigue + burnout, energy issues and painful PMS + periods to name a small, but mighty few.
Well, let's dive into those differences and I think the "why" will become crystal clear. :)
For today, I'm going to primarily focus on why it's important to understand the differences between male and female physiology within an exercise perspective. Know that your lifestyle, nutrition, work, relationships, growth, time + energy can all by synced up to your macro hormone life season to optimize your hormonal advantage, and that's exactly what I teach all my one-on-one clients in my holistic health, hormone + movement coaching practice.
As a woman with female physiology, you go through at least four, and up to six+ macro hormone seasons throughout your lifetime.
The four primary seasons, (in order), are:
- What I call your Reproductive Years,
- Perimenopause (which includes two phases), and
Pregnancy and Postpartum are the two other macro hormone seasons a women can go through, multiple times, during her lifetime. So technically, for myself - I'll have gone through eight different macro hormone seasons by the end of my life. Meaning, that at eight different points during my life, my hormones are following a different blueprint.
So in the vein, it totally makes sense why we'd need to adapt our nourishment - food and otherwise, lifestyle and exercise to support these hormone shifts, right?
(PS: you are in the Postpartum "season" until one year Postpartum, but I also want you to know that you are Postpartum forever - meaning that your body will forever be transformed, re-birthed and different after every child, and PPS: your body is amazing + always working for you, even when she feels changed).
Men, on the other hand, go through two macro hormone seasons during their lifetime - Puberty and Andropause (a term coined to describe the slow decline of testosterone in the later stages of a man's life).
What drives the change from each female macro hormone season to the next is a shift in your female sex hormones - primarily Estradiol (aka Estrogen), Progesterone, Testosterone, Follicular Stimulating Hormone (FSH) and Luteinizing Hormone (LH), for men, it's primarily Testosterone.
Optimizing these sex hormone changes so you can feel incredible means adjusting your life - movement + nutrition included, to match the very different shifts happening in each one of your macro hormone seasons.
Let’s make sure though, that you understand each of these seasons, as there’s a lot of confusion out there:
Menarche - your first period, kicks off Puberty and Menopause - your last period, which you only know in hindsight one year after that last period, kicks off Postmenopause. During puberty, your body is changing (hips begin to widen and breasts develop), your menstrual cycle is sporadic and you're likely having some anovulatory cycles. Due to the perturbation of namely estrogen + progesterone, emotions run higher and feelings become more prominent and intense. Due to physical body changes - namely the shifting angle of hip to knee and increase of weight on the front of the body (breasts), it's important to gear movement more towards stabilization of joints, relearning the technique of sports you play - like how to jump + land properly, how to shift directions (to avoid ACL and other injury) and focus strength training efforts towards proper form + alignment. It's also important to fuel your body for what you're doing and get enough rest. Due to changing bodies, girls tend to begin disordered eating at this time, creating a low energy availability state (LEA) which can increase weight gain and slow performance. It's important to focus on nourishing the body, versus under-eating and over-exercising (a trend that continues, but always creates undesirable symptoms throughout a woman's life).
Your Reproductive Years begin, and puberty ends, when you’re ovulating + menstruating regularly (which, by the way, is a marker of optimal health), you’ve also reached your full height, and breasts + hips are fully developed. Your menstrual cycle has four distinct hormone phases, which mirror both the seasons of the Earth and the phases of the moon. So cool, right?!
These hormone phases include:
Your Bleeding Phase, typically 4-5 days, which mirrors the energy of Winter and the New Moon,
Your Follicular Phase, typically 7-10 days, which energetically mirrors Spring and the waxing moon,
Your Ovulatory Phase, a 5 day phase (not to be confused with your 6 day fertile window by the way), which mirrors the energy of Summer and the Full Moon, and
Your Luteal Phase, a 10-14 days phase, which energetically mirrors Fall and the waning moon.
*Note: your follicular phase technically includes both your bleeding + ovulatory phases, but for understanding the hormonal + energetic differences, it's helpful to use the Earth seasons and separate hormone phase labeling. So your "inner Spring" is the non-bleeding and non-ovulating season of your follicular phase.
Each of these distinct hormone phases also require different ways of working out, eating + adjusting your lifestyle (let's call these "optimization strategies") to optimize your hormonal advantage + create cyclical energy that builds month over month, year over year. It’s important to track your menstrual cycle (and specifically know ovulation) so that you can distinguish your own hormone phases (what I call your “inner seasons”) and accordingly sync up your life. The need to shift your optimization strategies throughout the menstrual cycle during your RY + Perimenopause Phase 1 (more on that below) is primarily driven by the vast differences between Estrogen (dominant in the first half of your cycle), and Progesterone (which is dominant in the second half of your cycle).
Each of these inner seasons - in likeness to the Earth’s seasons of Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall - offer different physical, energetic, cognitive + intuitive strengths (aka hormonal advantages) that can be maximized when you begin syncing your life, food + exercise to them, which is what my one-on-one coaching practice and my online fitness membership Workout Like A Woman is all about.
Around 35, there’s an overlap between your Reproductive Years (RY) and what I call Perimenopause Phase 1 (Peri P1). Super subtle changes begin happening to your female sex hormones, that most women won’t feel or notice until Perimenopause Phase 2 - which is why I find it helpful to differentiate and label the two separately. If you do begin experiencing symptoms “classic” (meaning common, but not normal to the degree most women experience them) of Perimenopause this early, however - like hot flashes, night sweats, weight gain around the middle, brain fog and/or inability to build muscle - it could be a sign of hormone dysfunction (like high cortisol + insulin, estrogen dominance, low progesterone and/or thyroid dysfunction) that you’ll want to address immediately to allow for a smoother transition through Perimenopause and to Postmenopause (I work with my one-on-one clients to do this, but there's also education within WLAW on this too). During this overlap of RY and Peri P1, your cycle will remain predictable. As you pass 40, you may experience changes to your cycle length - it can shorten, but still be regular (ex: it goes from 28 to 25 days) and then will likely lengthen (ex: changing from 25 days to 40), but again, it will still be "regular" (and predictable).
You can know exactly where you're at in Perimenopause by testing your FSH. If your FSH measures that you're still in your Reproductive Years (between 3-9 mIU/L), then this can be another indication of hormone dysfunction (like those named above) unrelated to the natural hormone trends of Perimenopause. I recommend getting all your hormones tested ASAP (which hormones you test and when also matters for accurate numbers, something I teach all clients and WLAW members).
What I call Perimenopause Phase 2 - which is often known as the “menopausal transition” - begins when your menstrual cycle is no longer predictable. This is what most women think of when they hear the term “perimenopause” - which is really just the transitory decline of your female sex hormones - namely estrogen + progesterone (and the time it takes - typically 15-20 years). An example of the unpredictability of your menstrual cycle could look like: your period happens, then disappears for 3 months, then comes back within a couple weeks and so on.
Bottom line: You can no longer “track it”, like during your Reproductive Years + Peri P1, and it’s this more sporadic perturbation that signifies a deeper shift in your female sex hormones - where you’ll experience more noticeable changes - like the unpredictability of your menstrual cycle, along with some of the symptoms mentioned above (which can be managed + improved through specific nutrition, fueling, recovery + stress management techniques that most women aren’t educated on).
Postmenopause begins one year after your last period (again, this last period is called Menopause). It signifies the end of your cycling years and the stage where your female sex hormones remain innately low for the rest of your life. This macro hormone season again requires different nutrition, fueling, recovery + stress management techniques, along with an entirely different way of exercising -all of which, like RY and Peri, I teach with one-on-one clients and can be found in the bonus material of my WLAW fitness membership. This is a period in time, like pre-Puberty, where you're attuned more towards a circadian rhythm (24 hour cycle versus the 25-35 day cycle of your menstruating years), but also, still deeply influenced by the moon’s cycle (namely in mood + energy).
As a woman, you also go through Micro Seasons that are within your macro hormone seasons described above.
Here are some examples of Micro Seasons you may go through during your lifetime:
Hormonal Oral Contraceptive - aka the birth control pill, where you’re given an entirely different “cycle” via synthetic hormones.
Stressful (extended) periods of life - this could look so many ways, but here are a few examples:
The month(s) you're crunching on a big work project or deadline
A period of loss and/or grief
Times where you're struggling mentally (with clinical anxiety or depression)
Extended seasons of disrupted sleep (like kids waking during the night)
After a traumatic event
Major life shifts - like the COVID-19 season, moving to a different house // state, kids starting school or starting a new job
Physical injuries or surgeries - like spraining your ankle, tweaking your neck or getting your MCL repaired
Extended Hormonal Dysfunction:
Having irregular or anovulatory cycles during your Reproductive Years (RY) - while irregular periods are classic of Perimenopause, they are not normal during your RY. Periods can go missing because your exercise is too intense and/or stress is too high (among other reasons), so until your period returns to a normal cycle, it's important to put steps into place to support your hormones versus further stress, deplete or dysregulate them.
Any hormonal dysfunction like, but not limited to: HPA-Axis Dysregulation (also known as allostatic load or adrenal fatigue), thyroid dysfunction - including Hashimoto's Thyroiditis + Graves Disease, low Progesterone, PCOS or Endometriosis.
As women, for a huge chunk of our lives, we also run by a different timekeeper than men. From the beginning of Puberty until Postmenopause, your female physiology runs off what’s called an Infradian Rhythm - one of two timekeepers, the other being the circadian rhythm. Learned from Alissa Vitti, the Infradian Rhythm - only experienced by those with female physiology - is the 25-35 day cycle that regulates the menstrual cycle and mimics the Moon’s phases. The male physiology has just one timekeeper that it follows throughout his entire life - the 24 hour circadian rhythm (which follows the Sun’s cycle).
The Infradian Rhythm powerfully affects six different systems of the body:
Cognitive function (aka your brain) and certain strengths you possess at different times
Microbiome (your gut health, where neurotransmitters + hormones are also made)
Stress response system (your adaptability + resiliency to stress)
Reproductive system (including the menstrual cycle + fertility)
Your ability to build + maintain muscle (when + how)
Energy and mood
How you feel in your body daily.
Our society is set up to support the male physiology and the 24-hour circadian rhythm, along with a linear way of doing + being by assuming that energy, mood, brain function and productivity (among other things) are the same every day.
But your female physiology is on a cyclical timeline (your Infradian Rhythm that's 25-35 days depending on the length of your personal menstrual cycle) for a huge piece of your life.
This is why it's so important to not only know what macro hormone life season you're in, but to also track your menstrual cycle (and have a regular one). Because attuning your workouts, your life (namely looking at sleep, energy, detoxification and stress), how you work, how you mother and engage in your relationships, and how you eat to your hormone cycle is the difference between optimizing or sabotaging not only your hormonal health, but the level of whole-being health you're able to experience as well.
And any symptom that you're experiencing...
...from anxiety to depression, fatigue + sleep disturbances (not kid-related though he he), decreased tolerance for stress, difficulty staying or getting pregnant, breakthrough bleeding, PMS, migraines, swollen breasts, bloating, acne, hair loss, moodiness and frequent meltdowns, heavy bleeding + painful periods, dry skin, low sex drive or libido, hot flashes + night sweats, rapid weight gain or stubborn fat that's hard to lose, inability to build + maintain muscle, afternoon energy dips and so many more...
...is your body's way of communicating that something is off (and your hormones are likely playing a big role in it). It's not a nuisance or something we want to brush off (or cover up with a pill / medication). Your amazing body, through these symptoms, is giving you a golden opportunity - to address the underlying cause and create optimal health - in small, simple ways now, to help prevent any bigger health concerns later.
And while a lot of the above symptoms are common, they're not normal. And understanding this (awareness), is the key to making lasting shifts.
I hope you now understand better why ignoring (or not knowing about) your Infradian Rhythm and/or what your hormones are doing throughout the menstrual cycle and your lifetime could have detrimental impacts to your overall health + well-being. And that this blog post was both eye-opening, educational and empowering. Because when you know more about your body, you can support + nourish her better. You can begin to tune in to the signs + signals she's sending you, deepening your love and connection to both her and your intuition.
Curious to learn more about my online fitness membership Workout Like A Woman? get all the details and/or sign up here!