Exercise and the menopause
The positive effects of exercise on the menopause
The menopause is clearly a defining moment in the biology of any woman and can lead to unwanted side-effects, including weight gain. However, the menopause doesn't have to spell an end to your hard-earned fitness. Instead, here's our guide to exercising through the menopause and beyond.
Despite the huge emotive significance that menopause has in our society – the turning of the corner, the slippery slope towards old age, the passing of femininity - put simply, the menopause is the signal of the end of reproductive potential. There is no longer enough of the hormones estrogen and progesterone to facilitate or sustain pregnancy.
The average woman reaches menopause at 52-years-old, but the changes associated with the menopause can begin as much as a decade earlier. During this ‘peri-menopause’ stage, levels of the female hormones are depleting, influencing everything from mood to fat distribution, and causing unwelcome affects such as hot flushes.
Symptoms vary widely from woman to woman, but there is a lot of evidence to suggest that regular exercise can soften the experience of the menopause. In a study conducted by the Melpomene Institute in 1997, more than three-quarters of the study participants said that running had had a positive effect on their experience of the menopause. A quarter felt that it had dampened the physical symptoms while more than 30 per cent said it had had emotional and mood benefits. In another study, menopausal women who exercised had fewer concentration problems and less memory loss, while Australian research found that regular workouts reduced the incidence of night sweats and hot flushes.
Weight gain during the menopause
Although heart disease and bone health are the major health concerns for post-menopausal women, many will be more concerned about middle age spread. But is weight gain inevitable?
Many experts believe that it is the reduction in physical activity, along with a decreased metabolism, not attenuated by resistance training, that causes those extra pounds rather than something physiologically related to menopause.
Most of us tend to become increasingly sedentary as we get older – we drive instead of walk, take cabs, eat out and spend our leisure time not dancing till dawn but tucked up on the couch watching television. The resultant decrease in muscle mass slows metabolism down, while cardiovascular fitness declines, making us all the less inclined to get hot and sweaty.
One study found that women aged 42 to 50 gained the same amount of weight over that period whether or not they had been through the menopause, suggesting that lifestyle factors are the culprit in weight gain, rather than the menopause. What is a result of the menopause, however, is the shift in fat storage distribution to the abdominal region.
The disappearance of estrogen is the reason why fat tends to shift from the typical hip and thigh distribution to the tummy, where it becomes potentially more of a health threat because this area is more ‘active’ and therefore secretes more fatty acids into the bloodstream, putting the liver under stress. Which is why, exercise is even more crucial at this stage of life.
A University of Pittsburgh study found that of 535 menopausal women who were randomly assigned to either a diet and exercise program or just a weigh-in, twice as many of those who did not exercise had gained more than 5lbs (2.27 kilos), four-and-a-half years later. Those who exercised had not gained weight and their average waist circumference had shrunk. Evidence also shows that while exercise can trigger hot flushes in menopausal women, in the long run, being active reduces the number and severity.
Almost as important as the physical effects of activity, though, are the mental benefits. The comment heard most often from women who have taken up exercise in their 40s, 50s and 60s is ‘I wish I’d done this years ago.’ The powerful combination of beneficial health and fitness gains, a knowledge that you are ‘taking action’ to combat the effects of aging and the important boost to body image and self confidence make regular exercise a must for women as they grow older.
Exercising through the menopause and beyond
As you get older, the following points will help you exercise more safely and comfortably:
- Warm up and cool down for longer.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Be more vigilant about exercising in extreme heat or cold as we get more prone to dehydration and heatstroke as we age, while very cold weather causes the blood vessels to constrict, putting extra strain on the heart.
- Wear breathable clothing to reduce the risk of triggering a hot flush.
- Be vigilant about stretching – suppleness and range of motion decrease rapidly if they aren’t challenged regularly.
- Allow yourself longer to recover between sessions.
- Ensure you get at least 1,000mg of calcium per day. If you take a supplement, look for calcium carbonate with vitamin D (which aids absorption) as more of the calcium is ‘available’ than from other forms.