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Exercise and Menopause

Menopause is a normal part of a woman’s life that is brought on by declining levels of estrogen and progesterone, which trigger the end of regular menstrual cycles. While the onset of menopause is typically around age 52, it actually begins “silently” in a woman’s 40s, according to the National Institutes of Health. Many women wonder whether exercise can help with some of the symptoms of menopause, and especially with weight gain that often creeps in as we age.

The answer is yes, exercise can help prevent weight gain during menopausal (and peri-menopausal) years, however it is helpful to understand some of the other factors involved in weight gain as we age. Muscle loss and aerobic capacity are two of the factors that can often mean changes in weight in older women. It is a fact that we lose muscle cells as we age. When younger muscle cells get damaged, they’re quickly repaired, however that’s not the case with older muscles. Sarcopenia, the clinical term for age-related muscle loss, happens for various reasons. It is characterized first by a decrease in the size of the muscle, which causes weakness and frailty. in fact we can lose up to half our strength between the ages of 25 and 85. This loss of muscle mass may be caused by different cellular mechanisms than those that cause muscle atrophy. For example, during sarcopenia, there is a replacement of muscle fibres with fat and an increase in fibrosis.

The other reason for sacrcopenia is simply inactivity…which can happen as we age as well. Exercise and increases in activity have been shown to be beneficial in settings of sarcopenia. Infact studies have shown that exercise even in the very old can increase strength and muscle function. For a more in depth look at what happens to our muscles as we age, refer to this article by the University of Arkansas’ Department of Agriculture.

It is important that we work “progressively” during strength training or weight training. In other words, we should increase the amount of weight (or number of pushups, etc.) so that we are continuously pushing our muscles and always reassessing our progress (this is called the overload principal). This allows for us to actually increase our strength and not remain stagnant.

Our aerobic capacity also decreases as we age. According to 50athletesover50, scientific studies have shown that on average, after our late twenties or early thirties we lose about 10% of our aerobic capacity each decade up to age 60-70 at which time it decreases at a much faster rate. Studies of Masters endurance athletes show that peak performance can be maintained until 35 years of age, with a modest reduction in performance thereafter up to age 60-70. The main reason for this decline is a decrease in maximal aerobic capacity (Vo2 max). That being said, it is clear that continuing to exercise and even to push our aerobic limits, can benefit us in terms of aging and menopause.

Symptoms of menopause vary and can include hot flashes, sleep disturbance and mood changes. Menopausal women are also at an increased risk for osteoporosis and heart disease. One study by the American College of Sports Medicine showed strength training helped reduce hot flashes and headaches by 50 percent. Another published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing found exercise boosted overall health-related quality of life measures in menopausal women. It is obvious that moderate exercise certainly won’t hurt us….and it can probably help us to counter some of the effects of menopause.

The mood-elevating, tension-relieving effects of aerobic exercise have been shown to reduce depression and anxiety, which often accompany menopause. Aerobic exercise also promotes the loss of abdominal fat—a common place for postmenopausal weight gain. Strength training stimulates bones to retain the minerals that keep them dense and strong, thereby preventing the onset and progression of osteoporosis. These effects of exercise, along with improved cholesterol levels and physical fitness, work together to help prevent heart disease and minimize some of the symptoms of menopause.

We have seen how exercise helps to keep us healthy no matter what age we are. But it is great to know that even if we have not exercised much in the past, beginning to workout and build strength can help to offset symptoms of peri-menopause and menopause no matter how old we are. Are you experiencing any symptoms of peri-menopause? If so, has exercise helped?

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