You’ve heard the jokes and the horror stories. But often, faced with the onset of menopause, most of us don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Luckily, if you’re determined to stay fit—or get fit— there’s no time like perimenopause to begin a sensible physical regimen.
Physical activity, the most effective alternative therapy available for women who experience menopausal symptoms, allows women to manage both their bodies and emotions. When you exercise, your adrenal glands are stimulated to convert the male hormone androstenedione into estrogen. Just four 30-minute exercise sessions per week are enough to keep you "topped off" with estrogen.
Regular exercise can benefit you in a number of ways as you pass through menopause: strengthening your heart and bones, avoiding or minimizing weight gain, improving your mood and sense of overall well-being. It also reduces the duration and intensity of those infamous hot flashes. In a recent Swedish study, researchers found that postmenopausal women who exercised were able to handle menopause without Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT); in fact, some of them did not experience hot flashes at all. Other studies have found similar beneficial results, including mood elevation in pre-, peri-, and postmenopausal women. Indeed, studies have shown that regular physical activity benefits not only women going through natural menopause but also those on HRT.
On the other hand, being sedentary as you approach menopause opens you up to a host of potential problems. Sedentary women are far more prone to heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity; they’re also more likely to suffer stiffness and chronic back pain, irregularity, poor circulation, shortness of breath, weak muscles, depression, and sleep disturbances. Walking, jogging, dancing, swimming, biking and other aerobic activities help circumvent these problems. What’s more, studies have shown that women engaging in aerobic activity or strength training have reduced mortality from cancer.
Being active will also help you keep osteoporosis at bay—thus lowering the risk of bone fractures in your later years—since bones diminish in size and strength if you’re inactive. Because exercise stimulates the cells that help generate new bone tissue, bone mass lost through disuse can be re-built with weight-bearing activity. In fact, even postmenopausal women can help preserve bone mass in their spine with regular exercise.
Physical activity also raises the level of endorphins in the blood, enhancing your mood and allowing you to respond positively in the face of stress. Partly the result of estrogen in a woman’s body, these "feel-good" biochemicals also help regulate body temperature—which in turn can diminish the frequency and intensity of hot flashes. In one study of postmenopausal women who were physically active, severe hot flashes and night sweats were only half as common.