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Why you need to exercise to feel better during menopause

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Author: Emily Gilliland

The journey through menopause will be different for every woman, with some sailing through relatively unscathed and others suffering symptoms for many years. The majority however will experience some of the many menopause symptoms to a greater or lesser degree, including weight gain, hot flushes and mood swings. Exercising regularly and in the right way is crucial during menopause and, as part of a holistic lifestyle programme including nutrition, mental health and better sleep techniques, exercise can help ease some of the key symptoms.

Exercise and weight management in menopause

One of the most common side effects of entering peri-menopause is increased weight gain, in spite of the fact that their diet and exercise regime hasn’t changed. On average women will gain around 10 pounds or 4.5kg during menopause.

As oestrogen begins to fluctuate and decrease, the body begins to hold onto body fat. With the ovaries no longer producing a reliable source of oestrogen, the body begins to look elsewhere for the oestrogen it needs to support its metabolic functions. Body fat is a source of oestrogen and so naturally, the body begins to hold onto higher levels of fat to provide a backup source of the oestrogen it still needs.

The distribution of body fat also alters, away from the hips and thighs and onto the abdomen, creating the ‘middle aged spread’ that is all too familiar.

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What worked perfectly in the pre-menopause years may no longer be effective. Those fad diets, juice cleanses and hours on the treadmill just don’t cut it in your 40s and 50s like they did before. Now it’s more about quality rather than quantity, and making small changes to your exercise routine will work better for you.

Although it seems the odds are stacked against women during this time, weight gain does not need to be inevitable or permanent. The right exercise, along with careful nutrition planning, can help to reduce weight gain or prevent it before it happens.

Boost your well-being through exercise

Oestrogen helps to form serotonin, which is the body’s natural mood stabiliser. As oestrogen levels drop, so do levels of serotonin, which can lead to the mood swings, irritability and anxiety that many women experience during peri-menopause.

Exercise has a hugely beneficial effect on mental health and well-being. The chemicals released during exercise, including serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine help to regulate mood and reduce stress and anxiety. Exercise also promotes better sleep patterns and improves brain chemistry, helping to combat the mood alterations that can occur during peri-menopause as oestrogen levels drop.

Preventing osteoporosis 

Throughout our lives our bones are constantly remodelling – building up and breaking down bone cells. Up until our mid-30s the process of bone building is greater than the breakdown and bone density is increased.

Once women reach around 35 years of age however, the process is reversed, with the breakdown and reabsorption of bone cells outstripping the new bone being produced. Oestrogen has a large role to play in the bone remodelling process, protecting bone density in earlier life. Once oestrogen levels begin to drop with the menopause, this protective role is lost and bone mass is lost at a higher rate. Left unchecked this loss of bone density can lead to increasingly fragile bones and the onset of osteoporosis (porous bone).

Exercise can play a major role in preventing osteoporosis. Weight-bearing exercise and resistance training both put increased pressure on the bones and muscles – the body reacts to this stimulus to increase muscle strength and produce more of the bone building cells which strengthen the bones. Alongside diet and lifestyle changes, regular resistance training can help to prevent osteoporosis from developing.

Smart exercise

During menopause, women need to exercise in ways that will boost the metabolism, increase lean muscle mass and bone density and decrease stress. It may be a cliché but this really is a case of work smarter, not harder. Here is some guidance to exercise smarter:

Strength training:

  • Resistance training should be a priority for women during menopause. It will increase lean muscle mass – muscle is a metabolically active tissue so the more lean muscle mass you have, the higher your metabolism and more efficient the body is at fat burning. You should aim to resistance train 2-3 times per week.
  • HIIT: High Intensity Interval Training is an efficient method of training incorporating a short interval of high intensity work with rest periods (e.g. 30 seconds of work/30 seconds of rest) which will increase cardiovascular health and your metabolism while protecting, and possibly increasing, muscle mass. Long duration cardio of an hour or more can raise cortisol levels and increase the body’s stress response, leading to greater levels of abdominal fat, which is the opposite to what we want during the menopause. Keeping your workouts short and intense will help combat this effect. Aim to do HIIT at least twice a week.
  • Rest and recovery: The body adapts at rest, this is when it will build muscle and recover from the workouts. Active recovery such as yoga or long walks are an ideal way to help the body recover and de-stress.

Exercise is an essential part of a holistic and well-balanced approach to menopause and can help to improve the quality of life of anyone dealing with the symptoms related to this stage of a woman’s life.

About the Author
Emily Gilliland is a qualified Personal Trainer specialising in adapting exercise for older adults, ante/postnatal women and people with medical referrals (including conditions related to menopause such as osteoporosis). She is based in Bookham, Surrey, UK and offers 1-2-1 and small group training throughout the mid-Surrey area. You can contact Emily at: emily@emilyg.co.uk

 

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