Training the fit busy mum: what you need to know

When it comes to training female clients you should take a couple of unique factors into consideration.

How many times have you asked a female client ‘How are you?’ and been met with the response ‘Really busy’? Yet here they are, making the time to train with you in order to achieve or maintain a fit and healthy body.

The concept of ‘having it all’ – a family, career and lifestyle – has become a valued social norm in Western society. However, simultaneously engaging in multiple roles means that many of your female clients may be turning up to training feeling a little dishevelled – if they turn up at all that is. Both media and academic worlds agree that the ‘multiple role’ woman is a high achiever who is often trying to tick all the criteria of ‘Superwoman’, a term we’ll explore in a moment.

Two significant factors that affect ‘fit busy mum’ training clients are stress and the menstrual cycle.

The impact of stress on mums

Stress is often considered an inevitable outcome of multi-tasking. It has been described as a heightened state of emotional or physical arousal occurring when demands from the environment place pressure on the individual’s ability to adapt. Fit mums engaging in multiple roles fit this description. The mother, career woman, soccer mum, wife/partner, homemaker and sister. Sound familiar? Small bouts of stress can be protective to health, but chronic or prolonged stress can create a physiological nightmare and increase the client’s risk of coronary heart disease.

Stress has a negative impact on physical activity: it predicts less physical activity and/or exercise or more sedentary behaviour. This is true for both one-off situations, e.g. exams, and for the chronically stressed populations, e.g. mother looking after child with a cancer diagnosis. As women get older they are more likely to use exercise to help them cope with stress. This is great news for the fit, busy, older mum (or even grandmother), but the younger ‘fit busy mum’ is at risk of struggling to keep up their exercise regime.

Have you noticed that the typical ‘gym junkie’ exercises more in the face of stress than those who are relatively new to exercise? It has also been documented that women who are habitually active are more likely to use physical activity to cope with stress than those who are sedentary. When considering the impact of the female client’s stress on physical activity you should consider where their commitment levels to exercise already are. Ask yourself:

1. Is your client a ‘multiple role mum’ just starting out? If so, she is more likely to struggle to commit to a regular exercise program.

2. Is your client a ‘multiple role fit busy mum’? If so, she is more likely to use exercise to manage stress, but may also be trying to keep up with the ‘Superwoman’ archetype.

The ‘Superwoman’ mum

Does your client’s bid to be a ‘Superwoman’ pose a problem? There are two views. On the one hand, having multiple roles can enrich life experiences, and increase prestige, power, social connection and emotional gratification. On the other hand, multiple roles can increase the risk of overload and strain. Stress within one role could also increase the stress across her other roles. Either situation could apply to any female client.

Let’s take a closer look at a client who just can’t seem to shift the post-baby weight. You’ve written a great program, and she’s turning up to training but can’t lose the fat. Why? It might be time to consider what else is going on with her. Evidence indicates that women who perform concurrent roles often put the needs of others (i.e. spouse, family members and employer) before their own – no surprises there! When the results don’t correspond to the training, you need to ask more questions. Is she eating healthy meals or surviving on coffee grabbed on the way to work after school drop-off? Is she skipping meals?

Is your client OK?

Sometimes, the more stressed your client is the less frequently they exercise. There are occasions when exercise seems like ‘another thing to do’ rather than an escape – so she may skip the session, but not quit training altogether. Acknowledge how your client is feeling and that from time-to-time she may feel the need to reduce the frequency of her sessions. Keeping up the intensity of the sessions that she does make it to will help to minimise any reductions in fitness.

Does the menstrual cycle affect training?

Yes, it does – and it should affect your programming. In combination with the stress already identified, the ups and downs of the menstrual cycle create a physical and emotional rollercoaster which should be considered when training female clients.

Here’s a quick refresher on the menstrual cycle:

Days one to 14 are the follicular phase. Bleeding is usually complete by day five to seven. By day 14 or 15 ovulation begins, with a surge in oestrogen and luteinising hormone. The following phase lasts until the last day (around 28 days but this can vary) and is called the luteal phase.

Programming around the ‘cycle’

During the luteal phase oestrogen is at its highest, triggering changes that may hinder training performance. For example, low blood sugar during the luteal phase may result in decreased lactate thresholds. While lactate threshold variations depend more on training status than anything, this is still a huge programming consideration.

Thermoregulation (the process that allows the human body to maintain its core internal temperature) changes during the luteal phase. This is at least partly the result of a reduction in plasma volume. Plasma is primarily what allows us to sweat. When plasma volume decreases (on average eight per cent), sweating is slower to begin and body temperature therefore rises on average 0.3 to 0.5 degrees Celsius. Lower plasma volume leads to thicker blood and slower blood flow between muscles. This is not great for performance or recovery time! Women need to be more aware of heat stress and make appropriate adjustments in hydration in hot and humid conditions, or if the exercise session is particularly long.

A woman’s performance suffers due to a drop in iron levels as a result of blood loss during period, right? No. The average drop in a woman’s haemoglobin and haematocrit (iron) levels is not significant enough to affect performance. Anaemia is multifactorial and having a period doesn’t automatically make a woman anaemic. However, this isn’t to say that she may not feel a little more tired.

The cycle effects will vary from client to client. Encourage monitoring of physical and emotional changes that occur in your client’s cycle and program around it. It’s OK to have a lighter session from time-to-time, e.g. within the first three days of menstruation.

It should be noted that clients with high insulin levels may not see the training benefits from menstrual phase training because unhealthy hormone levels affect results.

Your ‘fit, busy mum’ client may be a Superwoman engaging in multiple roles and trying to maintain a fit, healthy body. However, you need to be aware that this can be stressful and not all clients will have the same threshold for stress overload. Situations in life change and maintaining open communication with your client is a must. Consider:

Altering her program during moments of stress, such as exams. For example, she may prefer to exercise more frequently but for shorter periods of time.

Altering her program to accommodate physiological and emotional changes of her cycle. Client diaries can be a really useful way to monitor the client to ascertain her needs.

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Rosemary Marchese is a fitness author and writer. As a physiotherapist and fitness industry advisor with 20 years’ experience she has also written fitness course textbooks. or