The emotionally charged topics of exercise and menopause need a new perspective. What do I mean? Well, it is not uncommon for a woman to declare she wants to achieve some milestone, or maybe something she’s never done, “before I turn 50!” I bet you (or your friends) have some pretty interesting things on your exercise bucket list.
For me, it was running instead of walking in the annual Thanksgiving Day Turkey Trot event with my family and friends. Now, my big brother was the long distance runner of the family. He ran track and cross-country when we were in high school. However, my “running” career never included completing a structured race. A short jaunt of no more than 2 miles at a time was more my speed. And, let’s be honest, “my running” happened in my teens and twenty’s.
At 49, I knew that this type of exercise was not the best choice for me. Also, since I wasn’t a runner, I was attempting a whole new thing. In fact, I discourage my patients to take up this type of activity at this particular age. But, knowing what I know, I did it anyway – (call it the rebel in me?). So I downloaded the weekly program needed to meet this goal in six weeks and away I went.
I have to say, I felt a ton of accomplishment and pride crossing that finish line. I thought I may even continue to run as my form of exercise. (It must have been that darn adrenaline pumping up my confidence.) However, with this lingering information in the back of my mind, I knew that it was not the ideal choice for me and my health at this time in my life.
Exercising strenuously, like training for a half marathon or marathon, may not be the best strategy for you during menopause. Remember it is your hormones in control here and keeping them in check involves many things. Correct exercise is one of those things.
One of the biggest complaints I hear in my practice with women at menopause is that dreaded “weight gain around the middle”. This challenge is true for not just those women who continually struggle with weight issues, but for women who are in great shape and have never had weight concerns.
At menopause, your hormones shift. As your ovaries start to fail due to the natural progression in a woman’s life, your adrenal glands kick it into high gear to help you through this transition. The adrenal glands are now your best friend. You need to keep them healthy so they can safeguard you. Adrenals are akin to your body’s guardian angel during menopause.
When it comes to exercise you may think that exercising MORE will do the trick to that nasty midsection belly bulge. But actually, it makes it worse. (I know, not fair or logical!) Due to the strain of menopause, you release too much of the stress hormone, cortisol, which comes from those adrenal glands.
High cortisol levels promote fat storage. This fat tends to settle in your midsection. So while you are training for that run or race, your body is in a higher adrenaline mode. This training over time creates extra stress and those unbalanced cortisol symptoms start to appear.
These symptoms may include increased weight around the midsection, increased fatigue and insomnia, anxiety, memory lapses, inability to handle stressful situations like you used to, joint aches, increased wrinkles and lowered immunity. (Dang that cortisol).
What’s a girl to do?
- Change your mindset – your body needs you to exercise differently. Slow down. Regular exercise is the best thing you can do for your health, but you need to do it the right way.
- Shorter duration – exercise a few times a day vs. an hour of high intensity (like an insane spin class) is more beneficial. Shorter is better.
- Calming Exercises – yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi, are awesome choices as you heal your hormones.
- Walking – any chance to get in a few extra steps throughout the day is great.
- Burst training with weights for 15-20 minutes three times a week is all you need to build lean muscle and burn fat. Studies have shown that burst training will increase your growth hormone. Savor this hormone to stay healthy.
- Rest days – I recommend these important rest days (at least 2 per week). Once you have healed your adrenals, daily moderate exercise is just fine.
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news if you love to run long distances. Although you may have that initial adrenaline rush and feel great after you run, your body chemistry has a finite amount to give in your lifetime. You don’t want to use it all up at a younger age. You want to protect and support this supply the best you can as you move into your 50’s and beyond.
Your body is changing and your approach to exercise should adapt as well. And don’t beat yourself up if your friends are out there finishing those marathons and you are stuck in the “walking group”. Trust me on this one.
But what is really important here? Menopause is a mind set – perspective, choice and attitude. Your smart choices based on these tips equal less wrinkles, better memory, flexibility, pain-free muscles and joints, stronger bones, and freedom from the chronic diseases that could shorten your lifespan. Who is the winner now – you are. (And you can buy your own dang event tee shirt if you want!) Let’s not just live long, let’s live long and healthy!