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The 'Skinny' on Menopause and Exercise

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Although I have yet to experience "the change of life" myself (it's knocking on the door!!!) as a Gerontologist I'm very often asked about it and most commonly whether exercise will help make the journey just a little bit easier! In my opinion (and many others) exercise is a natural elixir for most physical (and many emotional) challenges women face. I recently read a great article by Peter Ragnar that asks the question: "Is exercise an elixir that can add years to your life and life to your years?" Peter cites interesting research throughout the article that certainly endorses this theory.

Menopause can be a difficult time in a woman's life -- both emotionally and physically. Fortunately, a program consisting of regular exercise can help enhance your life and improve your overall well-being. In fact, lots of credible research has been conducted with findings that firmly support the idea that physical activity is one of the best antidotes to the challenges that often present themselves due to menopause.

Why is a women's emotional and physical health compromised during menopause?
Emotionally, one of the biggest challenges that women must face is the fact that they are no longer fertile. For some women this is a relief, but for others -- particularly those who never had children, but wanted them -- there may be a period of grieving. Even for women who have happily completed their families, menopause can be a sign associated with getting older, which many folks in our 'youth obsessed' culture may find difficult to accept. The hormone changes that occur during menopause can also contribute largely to mood swings or feelings of depression and anxiety. Physically, menopause can be difficult not only because of the hot flashes and other short-term symptoms it causes, but because the loss of estrogen can put women at risk for a diverse range of health problem.

How can exercise influence menopausal symptoms?
Research suggests that being physically active can reduce the frequency and severity of symptoms such as hot flashes, night sweats and sleep disturbances. Research also reveals that exercise has a positive effect on mood and can be useful for the depression that often coincides with "the change of life." Exercising in the morning may improve your sleep at night and exercise can certainly be one of the best defenses against the weight gain many women experience as they get older. The many benefits of regular exercise may include boosting your mood, strengthening your heart, improving your sleep and even promoting bone density.

How can your fat-to-muscle ratio and BMI affect how you feel during perimenopause and menopause?
As we age our fat-to-muscle ratio increases and we tend to lose muscle mass and add fat -- particularly around the abdomen. This so-called visceral fat, which turns our bodies from a pair to an apple shape, has been linked to an increased risk of type II diabetes, heart disease, gallbladder problems and even breast cancer. Carrying around extra fat and less muscle may or may not directly affect body mass index (BMI), but it will likely affect your risk of certain health problems, and it can also impact the way you feel. You may be more sluggish and have difficulty doing some of the things you did when you were leaner and in better shape (of course, some of that is to be expected due to normal aging). As fat shifts from your thighs and hips to your abdomen and upper body, you may notice your waistband and tops are feeling tighter, even if the scales aren't showing you have gained weight.

What are your top tips for women who are beginning an exercise routine during menopause?
The main consideration is to play it safe. Exercise should be about making you healthy, not putting you at risk of an injury! This means you're going to need a little longer warm-up time than you did when you were younger. Allow about 10 minutes to warm up gradually -- walking slowly, stretching, for example -- before an exercise session. You should also avoid any exercises that may be unsafe -- such as jarring exercises like jogging, jumping or high-impact aerobics if you have bone or joint problems. You can't get fit instantly -- it is going to take time. I would also recommend that women make exercise enjoyable. Experiment with different types of exercise -- dancing, walking, or working in the garden -- until you find something you really like. Try taking classes where you can meet new people or arrange to walk with a friend. Mix up your exercise program to make it interesting -- maybe dancing one day and yoga the next. I recently wrote a blog about new fitness gadgets and apps that will help you mix it up a bit.

What are the best forms of exercise for women in their 40s, 50s, and 60s?
Staying physically active consistently is more important than engaging in any particular form of exercise; however, women in their 40s, 50s and 60s should make it a point to engage in three different forms of exercise:

Aerobic/ cardiovascular. This type of exercise, which includes walking, jogging, cycling, tennis, aerobics, working out on a elliptical machine -- strengthens the heart and lungs and burns calories to help with weight loss or maintenance.
Strengthening. Exercises such as working out with dumbbells, resistance bands or exercise machines are helpful for strengthening muscles and bones and increasing metabolism to help with weight management.
Flexibility/stretching/range of motion. Stretching exercises, yoga and pilates can help keep our aging bodies more flexible and they can be particularly helpful for improving (or maintaining) joint function if joints are affected by arthritis.

Beyond this, the particular exercises women do should be based on their likes and any health problems they might have. For example, women who have bad knees should avoid running or jogging, which would put extra stress on their knees. Women with osteoporosis (brittle bones) should avoid activities such as bicycling or sports that could put them at risk of impact that could break a bone. The best exercise is one you enjoy and will do regularly.

How can women minimize the loss of muscle as they age?
Heed the old saying "use it or lose it." If you don't use your muscles you will lose muscle mass. For that reason, strengthening exercises are particularly important for women in their 40s and beyond. This includes working out with dumbbells, weight machines or resistance bands. For women who are just getting started with strengthening exercises or who have health concerns, I would recommend working with a physical therapist or personal trainer who can recommend a program specifically focused on your needs.

Remember... whatever exercise program you decide to embrace, always check with your physician before you begin to make sure it is appropriate for your lifestyle.

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