11 Things Every Woman Needs to Know About Exercising During and After Menopause from 11 Things Every Woman Needs to Know About Exercising During and After Menopause

11 Things Every Woman Needs to Know About Exercising During and After Menopause

Whether you already exercise regularly or you plan to begin a new fitness regimen soon, as a woman experiencing menopause you’re likely wondering how, if at all, physical activity might affect your body.

The good news is, while menopause does spur many (sometimes drastic) changes within the body, exercise is one of the best ways to help keep your physical and emotional well-being intact as you transition through it. When it comes to addressing menopause, no matter what approach you take it's important to consult your health care provider, and especially if you plan to begin a new exercise routine.

“It's important for women to gather lots of information, openly discuss their concerns with their health care provider, and develop a plan to take charge of their menopause, before it takes charge of them,” said Karen Giblin, founder and CEO of Red Hot Mamas North America, the largest menopause education program in the US and Canada.

The fact that you’re reading this right now means you’re already headed in the right direction. To find out what every woman should consider about exercising during and after menopause, we consulted several experts. Here’s what they said you need to know.  

Menopause is different for every woman.

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“Women need to understand that menopause is a highly individualized experience,” Giblin said. “The average age of menopause is 51, give or take five years. However, early menopause can occur due to surgical removal of ovaries, radiation therapy or chromosomal abnormalities.” Dianne Bailey, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and owner of The Conditioning Classroom in Colorado has worked with many pre- and post-menopausal women and says she is currently experiencing menopause as well. “Menopause may have a set definition — the cessation of menses for at least 12 months — but the expression of menopause is different in each woman,” Bailey said. “So the approach for each woman still has to be on an individual level.” She explained that, personally, she is much more capable than many women of her age because she’s been exercising regularly for 20 years. “That being said, it is critical for every woman to keep moving in order to stay as healthy and active as she can,” Bailey added. “If you are active before the onset of menopause, you are better equipped to continue and have potentially less to ‘work on’ during menopause.”

Exercising before and after menopause may feel very different.

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“Know that your body will be going through a hormonal storm,” said Dr. Denise Jagroo, one of only 200 women's health physical therapy specialists in the country and author of "Your Best Pregnancy."  “These fluctuations will affect how you feel — physically and emotionally.” How can you deal with this “hormonal storm”? Jagroo suggests a few tips, including learning to effectively manage your stress, taking time out of your day for meditation, yoga, or deep breathing exercises (she said there are many apps that can help guide you with this), and even getting an evaluation from an herbalist. “Some people prefer natural methods of balance rather than hormone replacement therapy,” Jagroo said. “Doctors of Chinese medicine and herbalists can evaluate your needs and recommend easy-to-access herbs to help balance your body. It's worth a try and doesn't feel like a 'prescription.'”

You may experience fatigue.

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Jagroo says some women can expect to experience fatigue as well as a slowed metabolism and weight gain. “All of which are reasons you may not want to exercise,” she said. “However, exercise is the answer to these issues. Exercising can counteract the weight gain you may experience and  help you maintain a healthy weight.” Plus, she added, exercising releases endorphins. “Those feel good hormones that can help combat mood swings you may be experiencing.” Giblin noted that exercise may help improve your sleep quality as well.

It's important to take care of your bones.

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“Women need to make sure they are partaking in a safe exercise program,” Jagroo said. “Decreased levels of estrogen and progesterone allow for the development of osteoporosis. Weight bearing exercises are important to maintain healthy bone density. However women need to make sure that the level of exercise and impact are safe for their bones and are not putting them at greater risk for fractures.” For this reason, it’s important to first consult your doctor about starting a new exercise program and it’s also a good idea to work with an experienced certified personal trainer, especially if you’re entirely new to resistance training.

Strength training is essential.

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“Movement must include some kind of resistance training,” Bailey said. “After menopause, the risk of developing osteoporosis skyrockets, so you must continue to put enough tension on the bones to keep them remodeling. Weight training helps keep the muscles strong, which in turn, keeps the bones strong. Again, if you start before menopause, you are in a much better position.” According to Bailey, there’s nothing specific about menopause that prevents a woman from lifting weights or performing other types of resistance training, like bodyweight exercises. However, she did note that if you have already developed osteoporosis or osteopenia (bone density that is slightly lower than normal), then you may need to modify how you approach your training. “But you should still be weight training,” she said.

Incorporate variety in your workout routine.

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Giblin said that once you talk to your doctor about your exercise program, you should then begin to develop a routine that incorporates strength training (to maintain and build healthy muscles and bones), cardio exercise (to promote heart health) and flexibility. “I also think it’s important for women to vary their exercise regimens in order to keep it more interesting,” Giblin added. “It’s essential that they start slowly, and work their way up, in terms of the amount of time they are exercising — gradually adding more time, or more weight. Also, it’s very enjoyable if you exercise with a loved one or a friend.” 

There's no way around it.

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Menopause may pose several challenges, and Giblin’s most candid piece of advice is to simply embrace it. “There's no getting around it, the best thing women can do during their menopausal years is to exercise,” she said. “It's key to controlling midlife weight gain and helps set the stage for a healthier life in the years to come.” 

You’re more prone to losing some muscle mass — and gaining weight.

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“Women lose about a half a pound of muscle per year after age 40,” Giblin explained. “When they lose muscle, the daily calories they were used to consuming, takes a dip. If they eat the same calories, they end up with more body fat.” The best way to counteract this? Increasing your physical activity, Giblin says.

You may experience some mental fog.

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“The mental aspects of menopause include some brain fog, some forgetfulness and the very real concern that you are getting ‘old,’” Bailey said. “Being involved in a regular exercise program can help ease those symptoms and relieve the fear that ‘old age’ needs to be a time to sit and knit. Regular exercise increases oxygen to the brain and has been proven to help in the relief of insomnia, as well.” 

Keep eating your protein.

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Bailey said the number one habit she’s noticed among pre- and post-menopausal women who exercise at her studio is a decrease in protein intake. “Over time, they have become reluctant to eat sufficient amounts of protein each day,” she said. “This results in low muscle tone, fatigue and the infamous middle age weight creep. When I see individual food logs that show coffee for breakfast, a small salad for lunch and then maybe a dinner of spaghetti noodles with meatballs for dinner, I know the reason that woman has told me she just feels ‘squishy.’”  

Check with your doctor before you use supplements.

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“Data is limited on whether herbs and supplements actually make a difference in quelling menopausal symptoms,” Giblin said. “Women should check with their clinician before using any over-the-counter products. They also need to incorporate lifestyle changes like eating a good diet and exercising. Some women eat soy and they say they have a slight improvement in their hot flashes.” Giblin explained that soy contains what are called isoflavones, or plant compounds that are similar to those found in estrogen. “But, the research data is mixed about soy, and the long-term risks and benefits are not known,” she added. If you’re unsure about a product, Giblin suggests checking with a healthcare provider registered with the North American Menopause Society (NAMS). “They have a list of NAMS-certified health care providers who are well respected and can guide women about the benefits and risks of all products, prescribed or over-the-counter,” Giblin said. “Just remember, that if women take the nonprescription approach, these products are not FDA approved, so there may be risks involved. Black cohosh, soy isoflavones, evening of primrose oil, flaxseed, vitamin E — these are some of the products women are using. But again, it’s important for women to discuss nonprescription products and vitamins with their clinician before taking them.”

11 Things Every Woman Needs to Know About Exercising During and After Menopause