Many of us will be coming at the menopause and exercise question from different directions. Some, like me, will have always exercised with a high level of intensity and frequency, some will have avoided exercise since their last PE lesson at school and most will probably fall somewhere in between.
The one thing common to all of those groups however, is that we probably need to change how we exercise around the menopause. I admit that this is very difficult for me. I have great trouble acknowledging that I can’t do what I have always done. Although I have never had any trouble finding the willpower to train hard, whatever the the weather, no matter how tired I am after work, I have to admit that I have struggled NOT to not do this. My brain will not acknowledge my physical age without putting up a fight!
Our changing hormones affect our physiology whether we like it or not and these hormones are also involved in exercise.
Menopause and Exercise and Hormones!
We don’t usually associate the two, but they are very interrelated. The hormones most associated with exercise and muscle are insulin, cortisol, and oxytocin (the three master hormones), plus glucagon, growth hormone, oestrogen, and testosterone. Here’s a brief rundown of the physiological functions they control:
- Insulin: Exercise makes muscle cells more receptive to insulin. So when insulin arrives at cells, the cells take up glucose, thus stabilising your blood sugar. Exercise is thus a great way to prevent insulin resistance (meaning the cells don’t respond to the hormone), thereby correcting excess insulin and blood sugar before they do damage.
- Cortisol: This hormone supports energy metabolism during exercise by dismantling blood fats (triglycerides) and protein to manufacture glucose to help fuel exercise. Exercise can also drive away excess cortisol in your body, brought on by chronic stress.
- Oxytocin: The hormone of love and bonding, oxytocin increases when you exercise – one of the reasons you feel so great after a workout.
- Glucagon: The pancreas releases this hormone in response to low blood sugar. It is the counterpart of insulin and raises blood sugar when necessary. Once in circulation, glucagon stimulates the release of fatty acids from fat stores and increases blood glucose levels, both of which help fuel exercise activity.
- Growth hormone: This muscle-building, fat-burning hormone is stimulated by high-intensity exercise such as strength training and cardio workouts.
- Oestrogen: The most important female sex hormone, oestrogen declines in middle age. However, we’re exposed to harmful oestrogens in everything from plastics to pesticides in the environment. This can lead to oestrogen dominance, starting at around age 35. Too much oestrogen in the body is a risk factor for breast cancer. Exercise helps lower this risk.
- Testosterone: This male hormone (women have it too, in smaller amounts) helps repair muscles after exercising and plays a significant role in helping to develop new, body-firming and toning muscle. Also, exercise stimulates the production of testosterone.
So – what exercise can we do to balance these hormones?
Some cardiovascular exercise
Depending upon your starting point this could be running, jogging, swimming, power walking, a couch-to-5k program building up to jogging or power walking the distance. It could be dancing, Zumba, tennis, step aerobics. These are relatively high impact and should be avoided if there is osteoporosis. Lower impact options include treadmill, elliptical machines, step machines, walking.
We shouldn’t be doing cardiovascular exercise to utter exhaustion any more (boo hoo!) Our struggle with the load for one thing, and injuries are likely. In addition, this type of exercise can be interpreted by the body as a fight or flight situation and stress hormones can be raised.
A study of 157 premenopausal women found that walking with long strides three times a week or more had an awesome impact on symptoms. The women slept better, were less irritable, had fewer joint or muscle pains, were more energetic. They also lost weight, especially around their bellies. The study was published in the Journal Menopause in 2014.
We should aim for 4-5 sessions per week of around 45mins duration. For some, like me, this may involve cutting back. For others it may involve building up.
“I don’t have time.” Well, I’m going to be a bit stroppy here. Yes you do (or at least virtually all of us do.) How much TV is watched in the evenings, what do you do with your lunch break, how many dogs would love that time with you, does your alarm clock not have a setting for 45 mins earlier? Once in the habit, it becomes easier.
Weight-bearing exercise to build muscles
This type of exercise can be done with bodyweight, weight training machines, free weights, kettlebells, battle ropes, resistance bands. There is so much information available for free online that it’s impossible to not be able to find something enjoyable, or at least tolerable!
Muscle mass decreases with age and we need to make a concerted effort to preserve it. For one thing, muscle cells consume energy and, for another, stronger muscles will support our joints.
Balance and Co-ordination
Our balance is far more important than people realise. Try standing on one leg, then the other. You probably find it easier on one side than the other. Now try it with your eyes closed!
Activities such as yoga, dance, pilates, tai chi help our balance, co-ordination and are also good for our mental capacity. I am a pretty good runner but if you could see me in my Sunday morning conditioning class where I am expected to do things with my arms and legs at the same time….. it’s mentally tiring!
Whatever type of exercise appeals to you, please, please get active! Numerous other studies demonstrate that many of the changes—both physical and mental—that we associate with aging and menopause are partly the result of inactivity.
There’s no exact prescription and many types of exercise cover cardio, strength and balance all in one session, for example, some circuit training classes.
Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this article and can see how the menopause and exercise go well together.
If you’re lacking inspiration then you might like my favourite exercise guru, Hayley Bailey; check out this lovely lady here
The content of this post is not intended to replace medical advice. Before embarking on a new exercise program, check with a medical practitioner.
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