While you already know that working out is essential for your overall health, did you know that it can have an impact on your feminine health, too? And nope, we’re not just talking about ‘down there’: the first thing to know is that exercise isn’t always easy on our lady bits. In fact, women who work out frequently are at a higher risk for vaginal infections and discomfort than those who don’t exercise often.
“When working out, the main culprit for causing problems down below is the heat and moisture that’s trapped when we our glands release sweat and our pores expand,” Sherry Ross, MD, an OB/GYN at Providence Saint John’s Health Center says. “Heat and moisture are catalysts for yeast, so if a woman works out and sweats and leaves her workout clothes on for an extended period of time, this can cause yeast to begin to grow.”
But the good news is that there are plenty of ways to stay healthy while you get your sweat sesh on.
Here’s what top OB/GYNs want you to know about staying healthy down there during class.
Your vag is an ecosystem (seriously)
“The normal pH of the vagina is around 4.0 or more on the acidic side, and things like semen, blood, antibiotics and possibly extended workouts can cause the vaginal pH to shift to a more alkaline pH and cause infections like bacterial vaginosis and yeast,” Shawn Tassone, Ph.D., a board-certified OB/GYN and integrative medicine doctor says. “The vagina is usually able to control its own pH, but in those times when you’re possibly starting a new workout regimen or experiencing significant changes in temperature, it can be more difficult for the ecosystem to maintain its balance.”
To keep your pH balanced while you maintain your balance on the bike or barre, remember to change out of sweaty clothes soon after you complete your workout—or, better yet, seek out gyms and studios that have showers so you can rinse off before carrying on with your day. “If you don’t have time to shower, keep a travel pack of vaginal hygiene wipes in your gym bag to use after working out,” suggests Dr. Ross. “A quick wipe, front to back, will remove excessive sweat and unwanted odors.”
Certain workouts are tougher on your vagina
Depending on your exercise of choice, your lady bits might have a harder time recovering. “Women experience more vaginal trauma when it comes to bicycling, horseback riding and spinning,” says Dr. Ross. “In spinning, the way the vagina is positioned on the bike’s seat exerts unfamiliar pressure on certain parts of the delicate soft tissue of the labia majora and minora, better known as the ‘lips,’ so with consistent classes or prolonged bike rides the intense pressure on certain parts of the vagina, tailbone, lower back and groin creates restriction of blood flow, skin irritation, and ultimately numbness of the area, especially the clitoris.”
These unpleasant results are referred to as “saddle sores,” which you’re more susceptible to if your grooming style is to shave it all off. “Pubic hairs serve as a cushion and brings softness when you are on the saddle,” Dr. Ross says. “If you’re totally bare down there, you’re more likely to get bruised and experience discomfort.” Your cycling posture and the way you sit on the bicycle seat also affects the pressure that’s exerted on the delicate parts of the vagina. Jogging, elliptical machines and swimming may be less impactful, but the experience could vary for each woman.
It’s important to pick the right workout clothes
The days of baggy cotton sweats have (thankfully) been replaced with high-tech, fashionable swag that actually lets your skin breathe, absorb moisture and prevents you from getting soaked in sweat while you exercise. So take full advantage! “Remember that yeast and bacteria thrive in a warm and moist environment, so you’ll want to opt for fabrics like nylon, spandex and polyester that are comfortable, nonabsorbent and flexible,” says Dr. Ross. “Some materials are even known to be anti-bacterial, enhance your physical performance and provide attention support.” Even better: If your workout clothes have built-in panties or liners with special antibacterial fabric that can absorb the extra sweat, leave the undies at home for a lowered risk of infection.
(Try) not to re-wear unwashed workout clothes
If you’ve got a jam-packed exercise schedule, good for you! But there’s no denying that it can be difficult managing enough clean outfits for each class—especially if you have to do your laundry in the basement or around the block. But it’s important to avoid re-using clothes you’ve already worked out in, as the sweat and bacteria has already built up and is even more likely to cause an infection when doing double sessions. “Wearing clean sportswear to allow your skin to breathe is an easy remedy in lessening the sweat, bacterial and foul odor build-up while working out,” says Dr. Ross. “Where there are sweat glands, hair follicles and hair, there is sweat and with excessive sweat and heat a rash can occur.” A heat rash is common if you sweat a lot, especially in a hot or humid environment, and leave your sweaty workout clothes on long after you leave the gym. “Ideally after a long workout it’s best to get out of your sweaty clothes and take a shower where you can clean the sweat and bacteria of your body, especially the vagina,” Dr. Ross says.
Think twice before douching
It’s estimated that around 20 to 40 percent of women douche or wash out their vagina, typically with a mixture that contains water and vinegar, though supermarket varieties often contain other antiseptics and fragrances. But experts warn that doing so can actually cause more harm than it can help. “Douching rinses out all of the healthy bacteria that resides in the vagina, such as lactobacillus,” says Dr. Tassone. “It’s also generally unnecessary since, in most cases, the vagina and vulva are able to care for themselves and self-regulate their ecosystems if given appropriate time.”
Taking a shower and making sure the area is dry and clean is the best way to combat recurring infections. Natural ways to maintain vaginal health would be to keep some tea tree oil vaginal suppositories on hand or as your provider to prescribe boric acid capsules for the vagina as they will keep the vaginal pH in the acidic range. If you are experiencing any signs of infection, like redness of the skin and/or pain, it’s best to reach out to your provider, stat.