Optimizing the body for fertility goes far beyond diet and prenatal supplements. Exercise plays a vital role in overall health, but specific forms of exercise seem to have greater benefits for fertility. Both yoga and Pilates have been shown to improve fertility, but here we explore why.
Even under the most ideal circumstances, a woman only has about 20-25% chance each cycle of conceiving. When her BMI (body mass index) is higher or lower than the normal range, it can become much harder to get pregnant because a woman’s body fat helps to produce the hormones needed for conception. Having too little body fat can result in amenorrhea, or the absence of menstruation. Without periods, a woman can’t ovulate or get pregnant. Too much body fat still often results in too little reproductive hormones as other hormones get produced in excess, like cortisol (an adrenal hormone associated with stress and inflammation). Excess body fat also can result in abnormal ovulatory cycles or lower quality eggs, making conception more difficult.
Both yoga and Pilates, as forms of exercise, help the body to shed unwanted weight by strengthening from the inside out. Many of the poses focus on core strength. The core, referring to the abs and lower back muscles, are where many women carry their extra weight, and by focusing on poses that strengthen these muscles, women improve the blood flow to their reproductive organs, which in turn helps to promote proper hormonal function.
Insulin Levels & Blood Glucose
One of the major causes of fertility problems in women is PCOS, or polycystic ovary syndrome. This disorder produces cysts in the ovaries, which have a disruptive effect on hormone levels within the body. This can lead to insulin resistance, which can cause diabetes. PCOS can also cause other hormone disruptions like eccessive production of androgen (male) reproductive hormones. This can lead to ovulatory problems and reduce a woman’s chances of conceiving or even having normal menstruation. On the surface, PCOS can cause severe acne, but if left untreated, more serious issues can develop, like heart disease.
Hormones are clearly essential for a woman to conceive, and not only that, must be kept in a delicate balance. Yoga and Pilates aid in proper hormone balance by helping to build muscle mass, which then combats insulin resistance, as well as reducing cortisol and stress hormone levels by promoting deep relaxation using breathing techniques and focused thinking.
As mentioned above, yoga and Pilates are both effective at helping to reduce stress hormones. Both forms of exercise also aid in producing endorphins, neurotransmitters that release feelings of euphoria, happiness, or contentment. You don’t have to participate in distance running or excessive weight lifting to experience this happy hormone or “runner’s high” benefits of exercise. In fact, exercise that puts strain on the body can negatively impact a woman’s fertility. This is why both yoga and Pilates, as well as any other forms of exercise that actively promote stretching, core strength, and gentle body movements, can work most effectively to improve a woman’s ability to conceive.
We’re very rarely in control of our bodies, and even weight loss is often much more complex than eating less or exercising more. Hormones complicate every process in a woman’s body, and often we feel powerless to gain control. One of the most soothing, empowering benefits of yoga and Pilates are the way that both practices can increase a woman’s body awareness. Not only does it help to increase blood flow to the reproductive organs, the brain, and other vital organs, it allows the woman to slow down her processing and really focus in on her body as she works through each of the poses.
Body awareness isn’t based on a specific set of poses, but rather the concentration and focus that any of the poses yield. Infertility can feel limiting, especially in the sense that a woman is often powerless to target the exact issue that needs to be addressed in the first place. There are often multiple factors that contribute to infertility. Sometimes teams of specialists are required to nail down the direct cause(s), or at the very least, time is required to correct imbalances or to simply patiently wait it out.
Statistics show that a majority of women who try naturally for three years will conceive in that time. But three years is time that some women can’t afford to spend, especially women over 35. Participating in exercise practices that help increase body awareness can help a woman to better connect with her body, and to feel more empowered in the journey of trying to conceive.
While both yoga and Pilates have these calming, strengthening, body awareness benefits, it’s also challenging. No form of exercise is truly easy enough to require no effort, and some may consider these forms of exercise to be much more difficult than doing basic aerobics or going for a run. But the benefits of yoga and Pilates transcend the core strength and the self-awareness they produce. They also build inner strength, or stamina. When you’re in the middle of a 30 or 60 second plank hold, the body cries to give in. While it may take beginners a bit of time before they can achieve the full hold, the process of trying and trying again is the same process that builds internal strength and willpower. It produces resilience. Infertility (and eventually childbirth and parenting) are all life situations that call for strength: mentally, physically, and emotionally. While these forms of exercise may not directly produce emotional strength, it will happen as a trickle down effect from the benefits of physical and mental strength that produce more stamina and stability.
About This Blogger: Aimee McNew
Aimee McNew, MNT is a certified nutritionist who specializes in women’s health, fertility, and autoimmune disorders. She has been in private practice since 2010 and runs a website and blog devoted to women’s health and wellness. Aimee specialized in women’s health and fertility after discovering she had multiple autoimmune and genetic disorders, some of which have contributed to her multiple pregnancy losses. In her free time, she likes creating recipes, cuddling her Boston Terrier, and going on sushi dates with her husband.