Menopause & Exercising

Menopause was previously regarded as a singular change in a women’s life. However, with advancements in research, we now understand that menopause is, in fact, an umbrella term to identifying the years – sometimes a decade – in which the female body will gradually stop menstruating (being fertile) and will go through physical and mental changes due to lack of particular hormones circulating the body.

As mentioned, the severity of this process can vary between women and can last several years to a decade; having a significant impact on a women’s daily activities, including work, socialising, and exercise. Here, we are going to discuss exercising through menopause, what to expect and what you can do NOW to best prepare for it.

Many hormones fluctuate and drop through the process of menopause, but today, we are going to focus on OESTROGEN. Oestrogen has the most significant effect on a women’s life when going through menopause. Essentially, as we age, our ovaries gradually stop releasing oestrogen – this results in irregular periods and/or periods shorter in length, till eventually, they stop altogether for a period of 12months or more. Oestrogen is particularly essential for several functions within the female body:

  • Oestrogen is a crucial regulation for bone formation – it tells osteoblasts (cells that are responsible for building new bone formation) to do their job. Without oestrogen present, osteoblast activity is secreted, allowing osteoclasts (cells that breakdown bone tissue) to continue “eating” away at the damaged bone, with nothing to rebuild with. Further down the road, this can lead to conditions such as osteoporosis and osteopenia (bone diseases) and further bone breaks, fracture, and incidences of falling in the elderly female population.
  • Oestrogen is a regulator for the autonomic nervous system (ANS), responsible for pumping out our fight or flight hormones such as adrenaline for example. Without oestrogen to govern this, the ANS goes haywire, causing a sense of panic and the hot flushes to arise. This can further affect sleep quality and the ability to exercise in a hot environment as your body heats up faster and struggles to cool itself down.
  • Oestrogen also plays a role in metabolism. Reduced oestrogen levels may lower metabolic rate (the rate at which the body converts stored energy into working energy), thus resulting in energy expenditure through mundane tasks to be lowered. Equally, as we age, we lose muscle mass (sarcopenia), which affects our muscles ability to contract forcefully (lowered oestrogen levels = lowered muscle mass and strength building capabilities). The more muscle mass you have, the more calories you burn as well (metabolic rate) and thus, as women age, and experience a reduction in muscle mass and strength, our metabolic rate lowers. This can all lead to an increase in weight as well as burning fewer calories. 
  • Oestrogen increases your insulin sensitive (how sensitive your body is too insulin and its ability to pull sugar out of the bloodstream and into cells after eating to use for energy production). With decent levels of oestrogen, lower levels of insulin are realised by the pancreas to balance blood sugar levels. Still, with less oestrogen, the body appears to become more insulin resistant, meaning more insulin is needed to try and balance blood sugar levels and this further triggers more fat storage.

So, what can you do to best prepare for menopause so your training and an active lifestyle are not severely affected?

  • Start RESISTANCE TRAINING NOW – bone mass reaches roughly 90% of development by the time we reach 18 years old, so weight/resistance training in adolescence/childhood is crucial. Encouraging teenage girls to lift weights in the gym, under supervised and qualified guidance, will ensure they are building good bone density. By the time they are 30yrs plus, it will have hopefully encouraged them to continue with this lifestyle and prepare them for what is to come with the bone density loss not being a severe as someone who hasn’t lifted weights before. Equally, the focus should be on strength AND power training – the speed and strength of muscle contraction diminish with age, so moving heavy weight is important, but also moving heavy-ish weight FAST is arguably more so.
  • Try and stick to food low (<55) to moderate (56 – 69) on the glycemic index (GI) scale (i.e. non-starchy vegetables, nuts, Greek yoghurt, brown rice, wholemeal bread to name a few). The GI scale gives food a relative ranking on how they affect blood sugar levels – food with low GI values are more slowly digested, absorbed and metabolised. They cause a lower and slower rise in blood sugar levels, and therefore less insulin is released to bring these levels back to normal. This will potentially lower the process of excess fat storage in the body as we age.
  • Ensure your hydration is on point – as mentioned, menopausal women will be at a disadvantage when it comes to cooling themselves down from exercise. News flash – plain water doesn’t adequately hydrate you, so you can either drink a low-sugar electrolyte drink or simply make your own electrolyte beverages from recipes found online. 
  • Promote protein intake and stay physical activity as much as possible! Most health organisations advice 1.6-2g/per kg of body weight to promote the maintenance and building of muscle mass and we want to encourage a food first approach to nutrition; however, a whey protein supplement can also be effective as a top-up. And equally, as true as the old saying is “you don’t stop playing because you get old, you get old because you stop playing” – continue being physically active and do not let this natural process of ageing set you back!

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