How This Woman Uses Exercise To Manage Severe Period Pain

Hannah Johnson (right) speaking on a This Girl Can panel
Hannah Johnson (right) speaking on a This Girl Can panel (Image credit: Courtesy This Girl Can)

Sport England has released an inspiring new TV advert to mark the fifth birthday of its campaign designed to motivate women to get active, This Girl Can.

The campaign aims to empower women by normalising the reality of exercise, covering topics that many women experience but that aren’t readily discussed, such as periods and breastfeeding. It also urges the media to feature more realistic and diverse images of women, as well as shining a spotlight on the emotional, practical and societal challenges that some women face when it comes to physical activity.

The new advert features Hannah, who uses yoga to ease severe menstrual cramps; Kirsti, who is shown breastfeeding before playing netball; Glynis, who is building self-confidence in the swimming pool; Farrah, who is meeting new friends through climbing; and Yvonne and Patrice, who are using circuits and jogging to manage the symptoms of menopause and polycystic ovary syndrome.

Coach spoke to Hannah Johnson, 29, who is featured in the campaign doing dancing, yoga and Pilates to help manage severe period pains – something that she describes as an “incredibly empowering process”.

How did you come to use exercise to help deal with period pains?

I’ve been active ever since I was a teenager, but I’ve had really bad period pains and it’s been debilitating – I would even vomit from the pain. Even though I was generally active, working out during my period was the last thing I wanted to do.

In recent years, I’ve been looking for ways to relieve the pain without taking loads of painkillers and exercise came up. I started working out and found that if I timed it right it does really help. My second or third day is usually my heaviest, which is when I get the most pain, so I try to exercise on the first day. It’s been a real game-changer for me.

Did anyone recommend you try exercise?

No-one recommended it to me – to be honest, everyone that I know that has really bad period pains has told me it’s the last thing they want to do as well!

Yoga seemed like a good place to start because you’re not jumping up and down and getting out of breath. Normally in a HIIT class I’m looking at the door and thinking about my nearest escape route, so I thought it might not be the best thing to start on my period.

Yoga is great, because even though it can be intense at times, you’re encouraged to think about your breathing. Everything is about tuning in to your body. Even if you can’t do a certain pose, the teacher is understanding and can accommodate you. It’s not someone shouting “Push!” at you.

Before exercise, had you tried anything else to manage the pain?

Not really – I would just take painkillers and have a hot water bottle with me at all times. It’s been the past two years that I’ve been really active about finding ways to help my period pains.

I did look at changing my diet, but it’s hard because you get cravings – I’ve got a really sweet tooth. I can’t say I’ve found that diet makes much of a difference. I have switched to organic period products though, which has helped.

Now, I don’t really use painkillers anymore. Sometimes if I can’t get to the yoga studio and I can’t be at home then I’ll take one, but I don’t rely on them like before.

I used to be in work environments where period pains were not an excuse not to be at your desk. There was no empathy for the fact that my period pains literally had me in tears. It was really hard and stressful not to be understood like that. So I was popping loads of painkillers just to get through.

In the end I thought: if I’m pushing through my period when I’m at work, I can push through my period when I’m exercising and actually doing something that I enjoy.

Were there any challenges that you faced when you began using exercise to manage your period pain?

I was mainly scared about being in pain so far away from any kind of home comfort. Sometimes if I’m in a yoga class I’ll want to get on all fours or a position to make myself feel better, and I felt a bit self-conscious about that.

Also during yoga you’re upside down and stretching a lot. It’s very rare that I leak but you can’t help but think that this will be the day, or this will be the pose, when it happens.

You get scared because periods are not part of everyday discussions – you don’t see them very much. It sounds like an irrational fear but it’s really not. It’s not always talked about openly.

You’ve mentioned fear of the pain being a part of your experience – what was that like?

I don’t think pain is comfortable for anyone but I’m very sensitive to my body, and if I’m in pain I will probably cry – I don’t want to burst into tears on the mat. I’ll get emotional, I’ll want to go home, I’ll feel helpless – it’s just not a nice feeling. But I was tired of taking all those painkillers, so when I finally got around to exercise I started to look for ways to make it as easy as possible.

Because I was always in so much pain, I was in denial about my period. I didn’t keep track of them – I didn’t even want to put a date in the diary because I didn’t want it to come.

When I started to use exercise I became more regimented with using apps or my calendar to track my period, so I could know when would be best to exercise – and discovered it was best before the pain hits, which is usually my first day, or even before my first day.

What do you think of the This Girl Can campaign?

I think it’s amazing. I’ve been so inspired listening to everyone’s stories.

The best thing about the campaign is that everyone is so diverse in their backgrounds, stories and ages, so when you watch the advert you aren’t thinking, “Oh, that person is just an anomaly. She’s amazing – but she’s just one person.” Instead, there are all these women from such different backgrounds and circumstances, and they’re all finding ways to be active in ways that work for them and just completely bossing it. That’s really inspiring to me because the message really hits home.

I’ve had such a response from family and friends saying that they’re so inspired but they could never do that. But I tell them you can absolutely do it! It’s important for women not to just see fantasies all the time, and to have real-life experiences shown to inspire us.

We need everyone’s support when we’re going through these things. We need people to empathise. I always say that if men had periods we’d never hear the end of it, it would be considered normal, so we need them to see it as well. We can’t do it alone – we need other people’s empathy, and understanding and support.

Find more real-life stories and ways to get active that suit your life on the This Girl Can website

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Sarah Lienard

Sarah is an experienced health, fitness, nutrition and beauty writer, and was previously health editor at BBC Good Food. She has contributed reviews, interviews and features to Coach since 2019, covering exercise bikes, fitness trackers and apps, among other topics. In her free time, she can be found hiking, swimming, cycling or trying (and failing) to do a headstand on a yoga mat.