Little is known about how the menstrual cycle affects physical and mental health. This lack of understanding is particularly disruptive for adolescents, who sometimes avoid sports during their periods despite some evidence that physical activity may reduce uncomfortable symptoms and that there might be some sporting advantages during menstruation.
The Wellcome Trust engaged Common to explore the extent of existing scientific knowledge in this area, and to find out what is already known about how adolescents’ experiences of menstruation – and the information they receive about it – affects their participation in sports. The Trust was interested in menstruation throughout the lifespan but decided to focus on adolescents since at the onset of puberty many of them reduce their involvement with physical activities or disengage from them entirely.
We looked at the relevant peer-reviewed papers from the past 20 years and talked with a number of researchers, with expertise covering sports physiology, behaviour change, sports psychology, history of menstruation, pain and adolescent gynaecology. We also reviewed research by organisations that have investigated adolescent experiences of menstruation, such as Plan International, Women in Sport and Girl Guides.
We found extensive gaps in the scientific literature and an urgent need for more research into the impact of the menstrual cycle on young people. We failed to find a single study that had investigated the links between menstruation and sports performance in adolescents. We also found little research on how public engagement campaigns drive adolescents’ behaviour – for example, would educating them about how the menstrual cycle affects their physiology encourage them to participate in sports instead of turning away?
The Trust is now working with Common on a codesign project with researchers and adolescents and intends to use the findings to develop a potential public engagement initiative to address some of the research gaps and engage adolescents in this important area of scientific discovery.