Exercise….The Secret to Breezing through Menopause!
Our society seems to measure a woman’s value based on her youth, beauty and fertility. Menopause, which coincides with advancing years, can bring about symptoms ranging from weight gain, to hot flashes and night sweats, to an overall sense of declining youth and attractiveness. These feelings of loss can give rise to anxiety and depression. Hormone fluctuations due to declining estrogen levels can trigger mood swings and sleep disruption. Hormone replacement therapy, once considered a fountain of youth for the menopausal woman, has been found to have more risks than benefits when used for more than a short period of time. Medical science does not seem to have any solutions short of grinning and bearing it. Fortunately however, there is an “antidote” to menopausal symptoms that regular exercisers have discovered, and medical research is slowly beginning to recognize…exercise mitigates, and can even alleviates some or most of the unpleasant side effects of menopause. Exercise helps control weight gain, reduces hot flashes and night sweats, improves sleep, elevates mood, increases libido, enhances appearance, strengthen bones, and that’s just the beginning. As Robert Butler MD, founder of the International Longevity Center puts it, “If exercise could be put into a pill, it would be the most widely prescribed medicine in the world.” Regular exercise combats numerous health conditions and diseases, and it can also help manage your menopausal symptoms!
Why do menopausal women gain weight?
What is the relationship between estrogen loss and weight gain? When a woman’s begins to produce less estrogen, her body will attempt to replace the loss by developing more fat cells, which contain estrogen. Since fat burns far less calories than any other body tissue, the metabolic rate is lowered, which in turn promotes more fat gain. Additionally, estrogen imbalance can bring about an increase in insulin resulting in more fat storage, increased hunger, and even insulin resistance. The hormone testosterone, which is involved in muscle production and maintenance, also decreases with age resulting in even more lowering of the metabolism since muscle burns the most calories of all body tissue. Furthermore, the drop in estradiol, a form of estrogen that regulates hunger and satiation levels, can encourage over eating and weight gain. As if that weren’t enough, once the protective influence of estrogen is removed, fat accumulation around vital organs in the abdominal area leave women vulnerable to negative changes in fat and glucose metabolism which can result in insulin resistance, not to mention cardiovascular disease.
Strength Training to the Rescue
Beginning in the early 20’s, the human body begins to loose muscle tissue to the tune of about ½ lb. per year. Considering menopause can begin around the fifth decade of life, a non-exercising woman reaching menopause can already have lost a great deal of her muscle. Regular strength training is the best way to increase muscle mass. Muscle, which is the most metabolically active tissue in the human body, requires about 20 to 40 calories per day to sustain at rest or during activity. The resulting increase in metabolism provides a powerful weight management tool. Regular aerobic exercise also increases caloric needs while improving cardiac and respiratory functioning. Exercise not only increases caloric demand while doing it, but for anywhere from hours to days after exercising the body utilizes fat to fuel the repair process. The building of muscle brings about the production of growth hormones, which can greatly benefit a woman during menopause because of the regulatory effect on metabolism. Regular exercise also increases the absorption and effectiveness of insulin, which can counter the imbalance caused by decreased estrogen as well as helping to curb appetite.
Another benefit of strength training and weight bearing exercise to the menopausal woman is its impact on bone density. Osteoporosis is a bone weakening disease related to estrogen loss and age. As muscles contract, the tendons and ligaments tug at the bone and cause the release of chemicals that increase bone mineralization, which increases bone density. Since there is a direct relationship between estrogen loss and bone loss, exercise takes on an even greater level of importance to the pre and post-menopausal woman.
The Beneficial effects of Exercise on Hot Flashes, Night Sweats and Sleep
The cause of hot flashes and night sweats during menopause are not completely understood, but it is thought that the drop in estrogen “scrambles” the hypothalamus (the part of the brain which regulates body temperature) causing the brain to detect an abundance of body heat. Reacting to this, the brain releases more chemicals to reduce body heat, causing an increase in heart rate as blood vessels constrict to allow more blood to flow through. The increase in blood flow increases body temperature, causing that sweaty, overheated feeling known as a hot flash. Night sweats, a form of hot flash, can be particularly disturbing. Chronic sleep disruption can cause cortisol, the hormone linked to stress, depression, and heart disease, to build up instead of being moderated by sleep. Although genetics and ethnicity play a major role in determining the frequency and severity of hot flashes, studies have shown that lifestyle and activity level are key factors. Penn State researchers found that exercise has the capacity to substantially reduce hot flashes in a 24 hour period following physical activity. The researchers noted that the higher the woman’s fitness level, the more significant the reduction. Exercise can “reset” the body’s thermostat in addition to flooding the body with mood elevating hormones such as epinephrine and norepinephrine. This rise in spirits help stave off the symptoms of perceived hot flashes that can happen to women who are relatively inactive, overweight or obese, according to Steriani Elavsky, PHD, assistant professor of kinesiology at Penn State. Regular exercise can help reset circadian rhythms, or the body’s internal clock, which in turn regulates sleep inducing hormones such as melatonin.
Exercise may not be a “fix all” for every single menopausal symptom, for every single woman. But it sure comes close. Working out is a win-win at any age, but for women approaching life’s “second act”, increasing your strength, endurance and vitality takes on a whole new meaning. Nature holds true to the “use it or lose it” principle and when relief from menopausal symptoms is added to the list of benefits, exercising becomes even more attractive. For many women of this age whose children are grown, this could be a point when focusing on physical fitness is possible from a time perspective. The post-menopausal years can be a time in life when relationships become stronger, values become richer and wisdom begins to flourish. Strengthening the body provides you with the physical capacity to enjoy more fully all the things you spent the first half of your life building.
To connect with Jeanne: Jeannie is currently embarking on a new avenue of fitness by creating an on line training website which is due to be launched next month. Please visit her at bodyfitnessworkouts.com. You can also follow her on face book at www.facebook.com/