When we think about fertility treatments, it’s not usually our Saturday morning pilates class that comes to mind—but what if we told you it should?
Infertility is more common than you think. More than 17% of the world’s population—roughly one in six people—experience infertility, according to the World Health Organisation.
One of those women is Lucy Doherty-Cole.
When Lucy and her husband, who are based in London, first began trying for a baby, they were surprised to find that it wasn’t as easy as they’d expected.
“I tried for a while and then I kind of went down the route of having ovulation induction—so I never had to go through the full IVF program. Just a little bit of help,” Lucy explained to marie claire Australia.
After two rounds of ovulation induction, which involved taking medication to stimulate ovulation, Lucy fell pregnant and later gave birth to a healthy baby girl.
But when it came to baby number two, things weren’t so simple.
“It took a little bit longer. We did try the same process with the ovulation induction. Three times we tried that and we didn’t have any luck.”
Lucy would have tried anything. And so, last year, she tried pilates.
Exercise And Fertility
Pilates has exploded in popularity in recent years. In Australia, more than 760,000 people participate in it regularly, most of them (89%) women.
Pilates and fertility, however? That’s new ground.
For the past nine months, Lucy has been trialling a new program at The Mama Project, Australia’s first ever holistic IVF movement and education program.
The program, which has been created by Ali Handley of the Bodylove Pilates and a team of medical experts, is designed to guide and support women on assisted fertility journeys with a series of movement, nutrition and mindfulness practices.
It provides women with two 28-day movement plans. The first is a preconception plan with exercises based around each phase of your menstrual cycle, while the second is based on each stage of the IVF or egg freezing process.
This means that, instead of simply doing a generic pilates session, women undergoing IVF can do movements specifically designed for how their bodies are feeling at each stage of their assisted fertility journey, whether that’s the ovarian stimulation phase or post egg retrieval.
“Women who are actually undergoing fertility treatment, including IVF, should understand how physical activity fits into their treatment plan and what activity should be encouraged or avoided,” Dr Justin Tucker—a specialist obstetrician, gynaecologist and doctor of fertility who helped design the program—explained to marie claire Australia.
How important is exercise to fertility?
As it turns out, very.
“We are developing an increasing awareness that lifestyle factors can be very important to general fertility,” Dr Tucker said.
“Physical activity in particular has been a focus of much research, the summation of which indicates that women who are physically active prior to undergoing fertility treatment, tend to have a significantly higher chance of success when compared to those who do not exercise.”
But when it comes to exercise and IVF success, it does depend on the type of activity and how much of it you actually do, as studies have shown that over-exercising can actually increase the risk of ovulatory-factor fertility.
Perhaps even more importantly, the program gives women the permission to exercise.
“Too often I see women whose fertility journey has left them feeling anxious, confused, deflated and riddled with misplaced self-blame,” Dr Tucker says.
“A program like this can alleviate the stress and pressure that many women feel when trying to negotiate a balance of exercise, nutrition and stress reduction in the setting of their general wellbeing and fertility goals.”
For Lucy, this was invaluable.
“Exercise is a very big part of who I am,” Lucy explains, “and when you already don’t feel like yourself—hormones are crazy things—you want to have as much as possible in your daily life that keeps you a bit sane. That keeps you feeling a bit more like yourself. For me, exercise is that.”
For many women, the IVF journey is one that’s fraught with anxiety—especially when it comes to what you should and shouldn’t be doing.
“I have a lot of friends who were doing IVF and they were too scared to exercise,” Lucy says. “I think it’s brilliant to know that you can still do that movement— but in a safe way—and with confidence in yourself to know that it’s okay.”
As Lucy was able to trial the program in its early stages of development, her own IVF experience was used to shape the program into what it is today.
“We had already started developing the program of workouts and it just so happened that when we came to shape it and add on more content and look at the layout, is when I started my IVF journey,” she said.
“I was really able to sit with her (Ali) and say, hey this is what kind of workout you need at this part of the cycle and this feels good on my body. Maybe less of this. So we could collaborate.”
Is A Holistic Approach The Way Forward?
While we can’t underestimate the powers of modern medicine, it’s also hard to ignore the value of a more holistic approach when it comes to women’s health.
For Lucy, understanding her menstrual cycle was a particularly important part of her fertility journey.
“It used to be ‘Oh hey, your period’s here. Just get through and eat your chocolate,” Lucy said, “but now it’s like, oh wow let’s celebrate this tuning to our bodies. Let’s eat certain things at certain times of the month.”
As the creator of the program, Ali believes that this knowledge can empower women to prepare their bodies for a successful IVF journey.
“For women, just like body temperature, blood pressure, respiration and pulse, fertility is something that needs to be monitored, looked after and optimised,” Ali explains.
“The goal of the platform is for women to better understand, nourish and care for their cycles, optimise their health for an upcoming pregnancy, guide and support women during assisted fertility journeys.
“We want women to harness the power of education, expertise and importantly your hormones, so they can thrive as women and nurture the mother inside of them.”
A more holistic approach also tends to place a bigger focus on the mind-body connection, providing women with the opportunity to tend to their mental health, alongside their physical. (In addition to pilates, The Mama Project offers meditation sessions and mindful practises designed for certain stages of the IVF journey.)
For Lucy, these practices helped her cope with the more challenging moments of her assisted fertility journey.
“There are days where your mind gets the better of you, and you’re like is it even working?” Lucy says.
“By being able to go to meditations to reframe your thoughts. Even if you don’t want to exercise that day, you just sit and meditate and you’re doing something for yourself and have that moment of self care.”
Lucy fell pregnant after just one round of IVF and gave birth to a healthy baby girl called Effie on April 8, 2023.
A pilates and mindfulness program to support IVF is, of course, an additional expense to consider on top of medical treatments.
But while not every woman is guaranteed a successful IVF treatment, a program like this can guarantee a stronger sense of empowerment, support and hope while they brave the journey—and that can’t be underestimated.
You can access the The Mama Project and its two 28 day workout programs for $150 on the Bodylove website.