Exercise and Menopause
Exercise is a great way to reduce stress and manage weight, both of which can help with symptoms of the menopause.
Why bother with fitness during menopause?
Whether you've exercised religiously for years or you haven't been active, physical activity during and after menopause has many health benefits. There is no evidence that regular exercise reduces menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes or period flow, but what it can do is alleviate stress and reduce or manage weight. Reduction in stress levels has a range of positive impacts and certainly leads to an improvement in the quality of life during this transitional phase. Losing or maintaining our weight makes us feel good about ourselves.
What are the benefits of exercise during menopause?
Regular physical activity can:
- Prevent weight gain: When women exercise they tend to burn fat (men burn carbs). Women have higher levels of the hormone oestrogen than men, and this hormone determines what fuels our bodies during exercise. During menopause our oestrogen levels fall and as a consequence women tend to lose muscle mass and gain abdominal fat. So even slight increases in physical activity can help prevent this weight gain.
- Reduce the risk of cancer: Physical activity during and after menopause can help you lose excess weight or maintain a healthy weight, which might offer protection from cancer - (see article recommendation below)
- Reduce the chances of osteoporosis: As our production of oestrogen dimishes, this can lead to brittle and often broken bones. Oestrogen is the hormone that builds up our bones. To counteract this, we need to do some weight or resistance training using weights (dumb bells or weight machines) or resistance bands to build up the strength of our muscles and bones.
- Reduce the risk of other diseases: excess weight increases the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Regular physical activity can reduce these risks.
- Boost your mood: Physical activity releases a number of chemicals and hormones in your system - such as endorphins - which give us a sense of well-being and exhilaration. These lift your mood and can improve your psychological health at any stage of life.
What sort of exercises should I do?
There are three types of exercise that can help us through this transitional phase of our lives:
Cardio exercises - typically these are exercises that use a lot of muscles and raise our heart rate. The main cardio exercises would be swimming, jogging or cycling. Other options include dancing and aerobics classes.
Strengthening exercises - for the reasons outlined above, building up our bones during the menopause is extremely important. Osteoporosis is a real danger and weight/resistance exercises can help us build up our muscles and bones. It is also worth considering taking supplements to complement your strength and conditioning programme.
Relaxation and meditation - different relaxation techniques work for different people. Yoga, feldenkrais and stretching exercises are three options, but it might also be simply doing some deep breathing exercises a couple of times per day. As individuals we have to find what works for us, but all of the above can help with stress, irratibility, fatigue and hot flushes.
- Exercise is meant to be enjoyable - Joan Rivers, the American comedienne, famously said that she would take up jogging as soon as she saw a jogger with a smile on their face.
- Tweak what you are already doing - our bodies need to be surprised from time to time so make small changes. If you are a walker, walk a little longer or up your pace a little. If you go to the gym enlist advice from one of the instructors for a new programme concentrating on a particular area such as legs or abdominals. If you are a cyclist look into joining a local cycling club. Swimmers could think of varying their stroke, maybe adding in some lengths using a kickboard or a pull-boy.
- Don't set yourself unrealistic targets - if you haven't exercised regularly, don't start off by trying to run a 10km race - you will injure yourself and it will put you off doing any exercise. Set yourself manageable goals. Start with a brisk 20 minute walk a couple of times a week and build from there. If you already exercise regularly, set yourself a weekly programme that you will be able to stick to.
- Set yourself some small challenges - For example, during your run, throw in a couple of short sprints; Maybe sign up for a local event there are regular 5k and 10k walking, running and cycling races around the country. Combining the sense of achievement with the endorphins released by your body from the exercise will leave you on a high on a regular basis!
- The recommended time for exercise each week is two and a half hours of gentle exercise or 75 minutes of vigourous exercise. You could set this as a long-term goal.
- No excuses - get out there and do it!
Jenni Murray, one of Britain's most popular journalists and broadcasters, addresses the the issue of weight and cancer. She suffered from breast cancer and in this article (Daily Mail, December 2011) questions the role that her weight played in her illness.
Dr Josh Axe's video on mistakes people commonly make at the gym is worth a watch - the main message I got from it is that it's all about weight bearing exercise and targetted exercise like Pilates and Ballet Barre.
In the Huffington Pos,t Alexis Abramson gives us The 'Skinny' on Menopause and Exercise.
Good Article on the benefits of walking - Polly Vernon in The Irish Independent, November 2015.