For many women, menopause is uncomfortable. Drops in estrogen levels can trigger mood swings, hot flashes, weight gain, sleep loss or fatigue. Menopause is also associated with an increased risk for osteoporosis and heart disease. The good news? Research shows that exercise can help. Karen Bram, a fitness professional in Gainesville, Florida, lists some good reasons to work out during this life stage and offers tips on how to approach an exercise program.
1. Prevent or Slow Bone Loss. Several studies support the use of muscle-strengthening exercise to diminish the effects of bone loss caused by estrogen reduction, inactivity or aging. While exercise cannot completely reverse bone loss, it can significantly slow the process. Bone density responds positively to stress—which any weight-bearing activity will provide.
2. Prevent Cardiovascular Disease. Weight gain in women in their 40s has been directly linked to a higher risk of heart disease. Fortunately, studies have shown that exercise can decrease body weight and body fat in menopausal women. In fact, researchers have seen exercise produce significant decreases in total cholesterol levels and other cardiovascular disease risk factors.
3. Minimize Hot Flashes and Mood Swings. Increasing estrogen levels is key to reducing the secondary symptoms of menopause, such as hot flashes and mood swings. Regular exercise appears to be a promising alternative or adjunct to hormone replacement therapy. One study showed increased levels of estrogen in both pre- and postmenopausal women aged 40 to 56 years after the women participated in a cardiovascular training program. Exercise can also reduce the irritability, fatigue and sleep loss associated with menopause.
4. Practice All Components of Fitness. Your exercise program should include cardiovascular training, resistance training and stretching because all three are important for your changing body. Try to make the aerobic activity weight bearing—options include low-impact classes or walking. Strength train either on weight machines or with props such as fitness bands or hand weights. While you may be tempted to concentrate on your lower body, train the upper body too. Keeping the muscles of the upper back and chest strong can help prevent the onset of spinal changes, such as “dowager’s hump” (rounding of the upper back). To stretch, use traditional exercises or practice an alternative form like t’ai chi, which is wonderful for shoulder flexibility.
5. Do Kegel Exercises. Hormone changes can relax the pelvic muscles. The stress of exercise or other activities may cause urine leakage, according to Dianne O. McCaughey, who trains menopausal and postmenopausal women in Stuart, Florida. Practicing “Kegels” will strengthen the pelvic floor muscles and help prevent leakage. To learn the Kegel movement, try this: In the bathroom, start a flow of urine and then try to stop it. Once you’ve perfected the movement involved, you can mimic it anywhere.
6. Focus on Deep Breathing. Deep breathing quiets the blood flow in the surface blood vessels around the face and neck and can help quiet the symptoms of a hot flash, says Sandie Schoenborn, a holistic physical therapist in Gainesville, Florida.
7. Drink Water. Make sure you drink water when working out. McCaughey warns that in some women hot flashes can cause severe sweating, which can lead to dehydration during exercise.
8. Dress in Layers for Workouts. McCaughey suggests that dressing in layers will help you deal with wildly fluctuating body temperature and let you control your comfort level.
9. Keep a Journal. Writing can help during menopause, says McCaughey. Record what you eat, how you feel, how you sleep, when you have hot flashes and when you feel depressed. If you can recognize when and why your symptoms are occurring, you can do something about them.
10. Procure Additional Information. To learn more about menopause, contact the National Osteoporosis Foundation, www.nof.org; the National Women’s Health Resource Center, www.healthywomen.org; or the North American Menopause Society, www.menopause.org.