An article by exercise physiologist, Jennifer Smallridge
For the female body, menopause is considered to be the closing of a chapter for the sex hormones and the monthly cycle as we know it. Symptoms vary wildly from woman to woman, however common themes include hot flushes, mood swings and changes to the skin and hair.
Health wise, it’s also a time of increased risk of cardiovascular disease (due to the decline in oestrogen affecting cholesterol levels), increased body fat, and decreases in bone density. Although these risks are higher at this time, they are manageable – with the right support.
Mind your mind
Emotionally, menopause is associated with the ‘swing’ from joy, to anger, to irritability, and everything in between. This is largely due to rapid hormone changes, and can take many women by surprise. Major previous events can come to the surface, and symptoms of anxiety and depression can be amplified.
This is a great time to re-evaluate what is working and not working in your life. Many women take these changes as a prompt to re-establish their identify and pursue what is really important to them. Relaxation and self-care are vital at this time, and regular chats with trusted health professionals such your GP can assist to make necessary referrals if required.
Is it hot in here…?
The dreaded hot flushes are a consistently reported menopausal symptom, and when combined with disrupted sleep, can significantly affect quality of life.
Although you might think that exercise could make hot flushes worse, the reality is, women who exercise regularly have been shown to reduce the frequency and severity of their symptoms.
Other strategies to beat the heat include:
- Reducing consumption of caffeine, alcohol and spicy foods
- Adjust your environment as much as you can to include fans, air conditioning, cold drinks, a cold towel, etc
Because of the links between the nervous system and the endocrine (hormone) systems in the body, regular relaxation has been found to reduce the severity of hot flushes. One study also found that being in an anxious state is strongly associated with the incidence of hot flushes, so remember to breathe deeply and prioritise feelings of calm.
Stay active to stay well
Aside from the mood and temperature regulating benefits, exercise is essential for whole body during this stage of life.
- Protect your heart: Research shows that women who exercise regularly (>150 minutes per week) have a 40% reduced risk of developing cardiovascular disease than those who do not.
- Protect your bones: Strength training and impact exercise have been proven to maintain, and even increase bone mineral density; which is known to decline after menopause. Women with low physical activity levels also have increased risk of fracture.
- Protect your breasts: High energy intake and obesity are known risk factors for breast cancer. In one 10-year follow up study, exercising vigorously for 4 hours per week reduced the risk of breast cancer by 22%.
- Protect your quality of life: Women who exercise more often and more vigorously consistently report higher life satisfaction, sleep quality and reduced impact of menopausal symptoms.
Whether you like to be active in a group or an individual setting, building a team around you is essential at this time. This could involve recruiting friends or family members to keep you accountable, investing in a personal trainer or exercise physiologist, or taking the time to find your ideal style of exercise (swimming, dancing, yoga, Pilates, rockclimbing, hiking… the world is your oyster!)
Freeman, E.W., Sammel, M.D., Lin, H., Gracia, C.R., Kapoor, S. and Ferdousi, T., 2005. The role of anxiety and hormonal changes in menopausal hot flashes. Menopause, 12(3), pp.258-266.
Pines, A. and Berry, E.M., 2007. Exercise in the menopause–an update. Climacteric, 10(sup2), pp.42-46.
Stojanovska, L., Apostolopoulos, V., Polman, R. and Borkoles, E., 2014. To exercise, or, not to exercise, during menopause and beyond. Maturitas, 77(4), pp.318-323.