If your idea of exercise is a good brisk conversation– you’re not alone. A Gallup survey showed that only one out of two adults between the ages of 45 and 64 get at least 30 minutes of exercise three times a week, the recommended minimum for good health. This statistic is actually an improvement over prior years – and yet still, the majority of Americans don’t get the recommended minimum, and women lag behind men in the amount they exercise. Yet exercise does help with some menopause symptoms.
Ellen DeGeneres once said, “I really don’t think I need buns of steel, I’d be happier to have buns of cinnamon.” However, don’t believe it – she looks younger than her 59 years by doing 60 to 90 minutes of yoga every morning, in addition to crunches, and she loves to dance. As for the cinnamon buns, Ellen says she has sworn off sugar completely. It takes willpower to think fondly of cinnamon buns without actually eating them, and perhaps even more willpower to get enough exercise to work off some of those calories you consume if you do eat them.
At Ellen’s age, when many women are faced with menopause symptoms, exercise can help with the weight gain that often results from a slower metabolism. Research from the National Institutes of Health showed that people who get only 10 minutes or more of aerobic exercise a day were on average six inches smaller around the waist than people who didn’t exercise. Six inches!
How exercise helps with other menopause symptoms
Fighting weight gain is only one way exercise can help with menopause symptoms. Several others include:
• Lifting mood and preventing cognitive problems that can accompany menopause. Exercise is a positive factor in reducing menopause blues. It also helps with short-term memory loss and thinking skills. Yoga and similar types of exercise that help with relaxation through rhythmic breathing are stress busters.
• Getting a better night’s sleep. Exercise helps you sleep better, which is important for women who suffer from hot flashes at night.
• Lowering cancer risks. Since being overweight is thought to be a risk factor for several types of cancer, including breast, endometrial and colon cancer, just keeping off excess pounds by increasing exercise is a preventative measure against cancer. Over 20 years ago, a five-year-long research study with over 70,000 post-menopausal women between the ages of 50 and 79 showed that increased physical activity was correlated with decreased risk for breast cancer. With a longer duration of exercise, there was an even greater reduction of risk. The researchers also concluded that the exercise did not have to be strenuous to have a positive effect. For example, walking was fine.
• Preventing bone loss. Like other parts of your body, the cells in your bones are constantly changing, with old bone cells exchanging for new bone cells. However, as you get older, the production of new bone cells slows down. According to Everyday Health, your bones peak at age 30. After that, your body makes less and less new bone cells. Due to lower levels of estrogen in your system, menopause speeds up bone loss. Weight bearing exercise strengthens bones, lowering the risk of osteoporosis and bone fractures. Weight bearing exercise doesn’t just mean lifting weights — it includes walking, running, playing tennis and dancing along with other exercises you do when standing up. You’re using gravity as the weight-bearing component of the exercise.
• Lowering risks for heart disease and diabetes, which are increased with weight gain and lack of exercise. There are conflicting research studies about the connection between the beginning of menopause and risks for heart disease, diabetes and stroke. Most studies have led to the conclusion that the risk for these diseases increases after the onset of menopause. However, in August 2016, the Journal of the American Heart Association published an article reporting the results of a new study of women at various ages which concluded that the risk for these diseases is at its highest just prior to menopause. The bottom line: according to the Mayo Clinic, while there is no proof that exercise can directly reduce menopause symptoms like hot flashes, exercise does make an indirect difference, since keeping off extra pounds and reducing stress, both of which are affected by exercise, can lessen menopause symptoms.
What types of exercise are good for menopausal women?
Strength training is crucial to preserve muscle and to avoid slowing down the body’s ability to burn calories. Women lose up to 5% of their lean muscle tissue with each decade, beginning in their 30s. That rate increases after the age of 65. “[Strength training is] as critical to your health as mammograms and annual doctor visits, and it can alleviate nearly all of the health and emotional frustrations that women face today,” said Holly Perkins, author of Women’s Health Lift to Get Lean and founder of Women’s Strength Nation, quoted in Prevention magazine. “And it becomes even more critical once you hit 50.”
Perkins recommends a full-body routine for strength building, performed twice a week. The particular exercises she recommends are published in the Prevention article. This basic strength training routine can be supplemented by other types of exercise that promote fitness, including walking, swimming, yoga and dancing.
One reason metabolism slows with age is the loss of muscle mass. By doing weight training exercises, you can maintain a higher metabolism and fight weight gain.
Is it too late to start an exercise program if you’re menopausal?
The simple answer to that question is no. Even if you’ve been a couch potato for many years, you can start an exercise program that will burn calories and fat, build muscle strength and make you feel better all around. Just start slowly — choose activities you like and gradually increase the intensity as you get stronger. Naturally, it’s a good idea to consult your physician about the safety of your exercise routine, taking into account your state of health and medications you take, etc.