As many of us know by now, menopause can be accompanied by several physical changes or symptoms including hot flashes, night sweats, vaginal dryness, sleep disturbances and emotional ups and downs. Many women have only mild symptoms; others have more difficulty. In the years following menopause, risk for various health problems such as heart disease and osteoporosis increases. What is the role of exercise during this life transition?

Can exercise eliminate or reduce some of the symptoms of menopause?

Some research suggests that women who have been physically active may have fewer and milder vasomotor symptoms (including hot flashes, night sweats, sleep disturbances) than sedentary women. Menopause is a time of transition often coinciding with other life changes (body, family structure, relationships, work, self-identity). Exercise has a significant and positive impact on mood and has proved particularly helpful in treating mild to moderate depression.

Can exercise reverse or prevent any of the physical changes occurring as a result of menopause?

Many women claim they gain weight during or after menopause (especially in their stomach region) and feel it may be associated with hormonal changes. Many studies have found that postmenopausal weight gain is more likely in sedentary women than in women who maintain a physically active lifestyle. Exercise seems to have a more powerful impact on a woman’s total body fat and abdominal fat during early menopause than hormone replacement therapy.

If a woman does gain weight during her postmenopausal years, the pattern of fat deposition may look different. This is because a woman’s sex hormones seem to promote the “pear” shape rather than the “apple” shape. A woman who has always deposited fat in her hips and thighs may find that she now gains fat in her stomach and waist. Unfortunately, this switch to abdominal and visceral (inside around your organs) fat storage is associated with increased heart disease and diabetes risk. So, it really pays to find activities you enjoy that keep your body fit and your waist trim!

Estrogen seems to bestow a “protective effect” on women when it comes to illnesses such as osteoporosis and heart disease. When estrogen levels drop, women become more vulnerable to these health problems. Exercise can step in and provide its own “protective effect.” The five years following menopause are normally a time of rapid bone loss. Strength training and weight-bearing exercise may help you keep the bone you have, while sedentary women are losing bone mass. Routine cardiovascular exercise has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and type II diabetes, lower blood pressure, improve lipid profiles, increase insulin sensitivity and prevent weight gain. There are a lot of reasons to keep moving!

Are there certain types of exercise which are particularly important during menopause?

A generally active lifestyle is the key. However, a woman’s aging body will benefit from three major types of activity:

  • aerobic conditioning for heart and lungs (walking, cycling, swimming, aerobic classes)
  • strength training for muscles and bones, (calisthenics, free weights, Pilates)
  • stretching for flexible muscles and fluid movement (stretching, yoga, Pilates, tai chi)

Recreational activities such as tennis, dance, martial arts, etc., can provide additional muscle and bone-building benefits and increase your fun factor! And don’t forget those pelvic floor exercises.

Older bodies demand more diligence about warm-up. Allow 10 minutes of gradual warm-up at the beginning of your exercise. This should include low-level cardiovascular exercise (walking, cycling) and range of motion exercises (gentle movement). Many experts believe that programs to preserve or recapture flexibility and strength are key to injury prevention and performance.

Exercise should add enjoyment and energy to your life, so find ways to move that gives you better health. Many women enjoy activities such as hiking, golf, skiing, gardening, dancing (ballroom, folk, modern, jazz) or yoga. Find your personal activity niche and invite your friends, neighbors or family members to join you. Exercise can be a great way to stay connected with those we love or build new relationships.

How does exercise compare with hormone replacement therapy in protecting my body’s health through menopause?

The decision to take hormone replacement therapy is a personal one that is best made with the guidance of your family doctor or gynecologist, who understands your individual health status and risks. Exercise and hormone replacement therapy can work in partnership to protect your bones and improve pelvic muscle tone. There are certain risks to HRT that make it an unwise choice for many women. However, EVERY woman can benefit from regular exercise in a variety of ways. Plus, it’s a lot less expensive, and there are no unwanted side effects except for occasional muscle soreness and a healthy glow to your cheeks!