Exercise for menopause – how it helps and how you can get started.
Jane Dowling, the inspirational trainer behind the award-winning blog Meno&Me provides the inside track on exercise for menopause. What’s most effective, why it’s so important, and how getting sweaty can sort many troublesome menopause symptoms.
Exercise during menopause is more important than ever before. In this article I’ll be trying to make it easy for you to know what type of exercise you should be doing and to show you that small steps over time will have a massive positive impact on not only your menopause symptoms, but short and long-term physical and mental health.
Menopause, exercise and women like you – what’s happening?
Women in Sport’s recent report found that “Menopausal symptoms, low exercise self-efficacy and physical activity knowledge, social stigma and lack of social support are significant barriers to participation.” However, the research highlights that women who grabbed their trainers and took part in physical activity felt empowered and in control of their menopause symptoms.
But are women getting active? It seems not.
Just when women need to start exercising more often, almost a third of women drop off from physical activity. Yet the desire to be active is high. Whatever might be at the root of this disconnect – symptoms, stress, busy lives – I feel it’s really important to make it easy for you to get fit and discover the benefits that exercise can have on the symptoms of menopause.
Menopause affects women differently; however, if you do not suffer with any symptoms; your heart and bone health are compromised, so please read these sections below. We’ll cover which symptoms can be managed through physical activity, movement or just being still, and how you can be fitter and healthier whatever your starting point.
Getting started is the toughest challenge
I know that starting any exercise programme is hard, and when menopausal it can feel even more overwhelming due to symptoms such as fatigue and painful joints. But it’s really worth it – making small changes every day will make a huge difference.
When I entered menopause, it hit me like a freight train as I was not in the best physical shape. I was recovering from surgery and a car accident and was probably the most sedentary I have ever been in my whole life!
At 46 I was told I was perimenopausal. During this time, I had lots of stress to deal with and I noticed a big change both physically and mentally. I had my first panic attack at 46, it was scary. This is when I realised I needed to make some changes. I knew making small changes over time would have a big impact on my physical and mental health during menopause.
I was lucky – I could the knowledge and experience I’d built up of over 21 years in the health and fitness industry to rehabilitate my injuries and slowly become more active. I then thought about what changes were happening to my body during my menopause and what I needed to address them. And hopefully with help and advice, you can too.
What going on inside our bodies?
We have oestrogen receptors all over the body so therefore the decrease in oestrogen that happens at menopause can affect us from inside out.This means we can expect changes – but there’s lots we can do to safeguard health and feel better about symptoms. Let’s take a closer look…
Protecting our long term health at menopause
Health focus: heart disease
During menopause, we are at higher risk of heart disease during menopause because of the decrease in oestrogen. The decrease in oestrogen affects the arteries in our heart and therefore it is important to become breathless to keep the heart healthy.
What can we do?
Exercise for 30-40 minutes, 3-4 times per week. Don’t worry, this doesn’t have to be done in one session – you can break this down to into smaller chunks!
Look at how you can incorporate becoming breathless in your everyday life:
- Walk as much as you can – ditch the car.
- If you take the lift, stop right now and start taking the stairs, even if you start off with one flight first! If you already take the stairs take 2 at a time and go quicker!
- Escalators – if you stand, start walking up them.
- Hoovering can be great…well I don’t like it, but my point is that doing it more vigorously will make you breathless. Put on music while you do it or plug yourself into your headphones – it will drown out the hoover and family members!
- At the weekend arrange to meet a friend for a cuppa but go for a walk first together.
- Fast walking will really help – getting fitter really can be that simple
We can all start somewhere. If today, you go out for a 10-minute walk and become breathless that is great! Over time you can increase this and who knows where you will be in a year’s time?
Health focus: osteoporosis
Osteoporosis is sometimes called “The Silent Killer”. Many women don’t know they have this disease until they have a fall which could result in a fracture or break. Imagine a Crunchy bar – the honeycomb part – when we are young the holes are small, the surrounding walls are thick, after the age of 30 our bone density decreases; the holes become bigger and walls thinner. When we reach menopause the decline speeds up at a rapid rate, therefore we are at higher risk of weak and fragile bones.
What can we do?
The major sites for osteoporosis are hips, wrists and spine. Therefore, we need to target these areas. Bone loading such as using your own body weight include; press-ups, tricep dips, lunges, squats, resisted rowing and back extensions for the spine.
Free weights, exercise bands or fixed resistance machines in the gym are great! Also working the abdominals will help with spine strengthening. If you do venture into a gym or leisure centre have a look at Pilates, body pump, legs bums and tums classes as well as general body conditioning. These are a great way to start, plus you will have an instructor to correct any bad technique. Even some type of more dynamic yoga will help.
Impact work – such as running, jumping and skipping – is great for loading the hips and lower spine, so if you are doing these, great. All you need to do now is just look at doing additional exercises for your wrists and upper spine.
It is easy! Jump up and down, do some press ups and then two spine exercises, and you are safe!
Did you know? Research shows that tennis players have stronger bones in their wrists on their dominant arm… proof that impact work builds strong bones!
IMPORTANT: Impact work can be ‘contraindicated’ – something to avoid – if you already have osteoporosis so please make sure you speak to your GP before undertaking.
Reducing the impact of menopause symptoms
In this next section, I’m taking a look at the symptoms many of us experience, and the practical ways we can feel happier and more comfortable in our bodies.
Health focus: painful joints and muscles
Painful joints during menopause are very common. I suffered myself but moving daily helps me stay mobile, I don’t I feel my age anymore!
The pain in the joint is because of the decrease in oestrogen which affects the levels of collagen in our joints. It is also age-related. When we are younger, we have fluid in our joints that is like runny honey but the older we become it is more like glue. However, the positive thing is the more we move the more this glue can become like that honey again!
What can we do?
Mobility: Gentle mobility exercises are great for our joints, moving your joints will lubricate them and help with stiffness. Shoulder rolls, feet circles, squats, side bend and head twists, simple but very effective as this will stimulate ease of movement.
Strengthening: If you strengthen your muscles it will help support the joint therefore helping with pain in both the joint and the muscle.
Stretching: Each muscle in the body crosses a joint, therefore if that muscles is not stretched then you will feel stiff in the joint and the muscle.
Health focus: anxiety, stress, brain fog and sleep
There have been more studies recently that proves that exercise will help with depression and anxiety. Also, if we can become more active it will help us think clearer and help our body to unwind and help with sleep.
What can we do?
Becoming breathless will really help with anxiety and depression. We have feel good receptors in our brain, when we exercise, we release feel good chemicals such as endorphins. This leads to improved self-esteem, it is a key psychological benefit of regular physical activity. These endorphins interact with the receptors in your brain that reduce your perception of pain and can act as an analgesic, remember painful muscles and joints!?
Endorphins also trigger a positive feeling in the body, like that of morphine! For example, the feeling that follows a run or workout is often described as “euphoric.” This can be accompanied by a positive and energising outlook on life.
Endorphins also act as sedative, helping with sleep – a brilliant bonus not everyone is aware of!
Another type of activity that’s well worth looking at is meditation. When people think of meditation, we think of sitting cross legged and chanting. While this can be one form, just being still and listening to your breathing can help.
Meditation can help with many aspects of managing symptoms. If we calm our body through mindfulness our nervous system can find a calmer setting and “turn down” our pain receptors. Because our adrenals are overworked and releasing more cortisol it will be beneficial to pain management to perform some type of mindfulness on a daily basis; even just 10 minutes per day will have a positive affect!
Health focus: Hot flushes
These can so debilitating however managing stress can help. Recent studies have shown a link between hot flushes and stress. Becoming more active will help relieve stress, and as a result, minimises your hot flushes. Becoming breathless and practicing some type mindfulness or meditation along with cutting back on alcohol, caffeine and sugar will help.
Health focus: Pelvic floor function
There are two types of pelvic floor exercises all women should do; quick and slow. These two types will help different types of incontinence – and if that’s not a problem for you at the moment, remember that prevention is always better than cure!
The quick ones will help keep us from leaking if participating in any physical activity, especially impact work, and protect us when laughing, coughing or sneezing!
The slower ones will keep our bladder full until we can reach a toilet without leakage and to help you have an undisturbed night’s sleep. The slower exercises will also help the type of incontinence that is not always talked about – if you think you have finished going to the loo, wiped and then stand up and have some leakage.
Women can also suffer with constriction and tightening of these muscles due to stress; which can lead to not being able to empty the bladder fully. Try rocking the pelvis forward and back on the toilet and relaxing; if this continues ask to be referred to a women’s health physiotherapist by your GP.
Did you know? We are at higher risk of urinary tract infections during menopause, if you find you suffer with these regularly then please do visit your GP – find out more about menopause and urinary problems here.
If you have the desire to live a full, healthy, pain free life, then now’s the time to start to move more! And it’s really easy to get started, even if you’ve never exercised before…
- 50 Plus sessions: Run at specific times in your local leisure centre.
- GP referral scheme: If you are suffering with anxiety, depression, high BP or cholesterol, or struggling with your weight then your GP can refer you to a local leisure centre. There will also be a specialist instructor on hand to help you on your way.
- Aqua sessions: These are great! You will not be surround by young Lycra clad girls, you will commonly be surrounded by other menopausal women! The water will support your body weight, so if you are suffering with very painful joints or have injuries then this is the class for you. Did you know that you burn more calories in an aqua class compared to a similar studio-based class? Plus, you won’t feel as hot, so these are great if you are suffering with hot flushes!
All the above are offered at local leisure centres at a fraction of the cost of usual gym memberships and you can pay as you go.
IMPORTANT: with any new exercise regime please obtain the all clear from you GP.
About Jane Dowling
Jane Dowling is a clinical exercise practitioner, health professional and menopause advocate. She combines her experience of menopause and experience as a coach to help women navigate through menopause and to come out the other side using her award-winning blog, Meno&Me.Her qualifications include: PT award YMCA; BACR Phase iv Cardiac; Postural Stability – falls prevention for the elderly; Dr Dawn Skelton Later Life Training; GP referral scheme for Later Life Training.