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.
Last, but certainly not least, regular exercise may allow you to maintain better mental agility by increasing the amount of oxygen delivered to the brain. A study comparing older women who were sedentary with older women who exercised regularly for four months, found that the active group processed information faster when tested. In addition, exercise may slow down the loss of dopamine, a neurotransmitter which helps prevent shaking and stiffness that come with old age.
What type of exercise routine should you plan if you’re gearing up for (or going through) menopause? Generally there are three components to a healthy routine: appropriate stretching exercises to improve and maintain flexibility, resistance training to delay loss of bone and muscle tissue, and aerobic activity that will strengthen your overall health and help you maintain a sensible weight.
The bottom line is that whether you crave solitude and independence on an early morning walk or an exercise class that’s always a social occasion, you’ll be much better prepared to soar through menopause if you’re taking care of the body you’re in. You may still have those flashes— but they may be warm rather than hot, and a lot easier to endure!