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Fit to Be a Mom? How Exercise Affects Your Fertility

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Your devotion to exercise could help -- or hurt -- your odds of conceiving. Here are fertility facts every woman must know.

How Exercise Affects Fertility

I wasn't always sure I wanted to be a mom. I love to spend time with friends, go for runs and spoil my dog, and for many years that was enough. Then I met Scott, who was so passionate about starting a family that in falling in love with him, I started to see things differently. By the time he proposed, I couldn't wait to make babies together; it was so easy to imagine having a full life with kids in tow.

Shortly after we got married, though, I was diagnosed with endometriosis, a disorder in which the lining of the uterus grows in other areas of the body, raising the odds of infertility. After I had surgery to remedy the condition, specialists told me that my chances of conceiving within two years were pretty good.

So for more than a year now Scott and I have done our best to create a little human. Hoping to boost my odds, I've sipped Chinese herbs that taste like mud, eaten bags of antioxidant-packed goji berries, popped Mucinex to increase cervical mucus, and even received a Maya abdominal massage from a self-described fer?tility goddess. The rubdown technique, passed down through generations of midwives and healers, is intended to guide reproductive organs into the proper position and improve their function. Too bad it just gave me gas.

Strangely enough, I've never been thrown by any of these unorthodox sug?gestions. Hey, who am I to question the wisdom of healers? I was shocked, however, when my fertility acupuncturist and then my reproductive endocrinologist, a doctor specializing in reproductive disorders, suggested that to increase my chances of conceiving, I should relax the intensity and duration of my exercise routine. My 90-minute gym habit five days a week not only improved my health and kept my weight in check but also minimized my baby-making stress. So when did a good workout become a bad idea?

The Guideline Gap

"We've known that weight is an important factor in fertility, but considering the role of exercise is a recent phenomenon in Western medicine," explains Robert Brzyski, MD, PhD, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and chair of the ethics committee of the American Society of Reproductive Medicine (ASRM). Preliminary research suggests that regular workouts may actually improve reproductive function: A study in Obstetrics & Gynecology concluded that women who exercised 30 minutes or more daily had a reduced risk of infertility due to ovulation disorders. On the other hand, some data links too much vigorous exercise with lowered fertility, as both a 2009 study in Human Reproduction and a Harvard study of elite athletes found. Clearly fitness activity plays a role in a woman's chances of conceiving, yet "studies on which to base fitness advice are still difficult to find and often contradictory, so it's been hard to give women definitive guidelines to follow," Dr. Brzyski says.

With so little to go on, it's no surprise women's-health organizations don't provide doctors with any specific rules on exercise frequency or intensity for women trying to conceive. In turn, most ob-gyns and specialists don't dole out fitness advice, especially to women with a healthy body mass index (BMI) and a normal menstrual history. Once a woman has been trying unsuccessfully for a year -- the definition of infertility -- Dr. Brzyski will assess common issues such as her age, her cycles and ovulatory status, and the condition of her uterus and tubes and her partner's sperm. Only after that will he consider whether too much or too little physical activity is tripping things up. "Unless a woman's periods are absent or irregular, exercise is usually the last variable we look at, because it's the one we know the least about and one whose effect varies from woman to woman," he says. "But research is beginning to suggest it's more important than we realize."

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