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Ease into Menopause with Exercise

Pprevent middle-age spread with exercise

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Updated April 16, 2014

"Getting older stinks!" This is what *Jenny, my 50-year-old client said to me, right before she broke down in tears over the 15 pounds she'd gained since going through menopause. Jenny had always been thin and never struggled with weight problems...so what changed? When I told her it was most likely due to getting older, changing hormones, slowing metabolism and lack of activity, she didn't seem terribly impressed. The truth is, women's bodies do change as they get older and go through menopause, but weight gain isn't inevitable; we have more control over our bodies and how they age than we think.

What Happens During Menopause

Beginning around the mid-thirties, hormone production in the ovaries starts to slow down. It slows down even more when you hit your 40s and you may experience hormone fluctuations until you go through menopause, which happens around 50 for the average woman. What many women don't like about this process are the symptoms and problems that come with these shifting hormones such as:

  • Hot flashes
  • Depression, stress and anxiety
  • Sleep disorders
  • Irritability
  • Osteoporosis
  • Cardiovascular disease

Another experience many women have is weight gain, especially around the belly and waistline. Part of this has to do with those declining hormones, though researchers aren't sure how or why. Experts at Oregon Health & Science University have found intriguing evidence that, for some, menopause may increase appetite. By studying hormones in monkeys (which are virtually identical to humans), researchers concluded that, with decreased hormones, many monkeys increased their food intake by 67%. (OHSU Researchers Reveal Relationship Between Weight Gain And Female Hormones).

Menopause isn't the only cause of middle-age spread. Other factors include:

  • Reduced activity. Women often exercise less when they enter menopause, which can lead to weight gain.
  • Decreased metabolism. One reason metabolism declines with age is the loss of muscle mass. Muscle burns more calories than fat, so when you lose that muscle (about 1/2-lb a year if you don't preserve it with weight training/exercise), you don't burn as many calories.
  • Increase in calories. As metabolism drops, many people don't adjust their calories accordingly, which often leads to weight gain.
  • Genetics. Your genetic makeup and where you're predisposed to gain and store fat also plays a role in weight gain, making it more difficult to maintain your figure.

Easing into Menopause

There are any number of ways to manage menopause symptoms, from alternative therapies (such as acupuncture) to eating a healthy diet. However, one simple thing you can do right now is exercise. As the American Council on Exercise states: "The good news is that a regular program of physical activity can help manage many of the uncomfortable symptoms of menopause as well as the related health concerns, such as heart disease and osteoporosis." (Exercise and Menopause)

Other benefits of exercise include:

  • Reduced stress. Menopause can often lead to depression, anxiety and stress. Exercise is proven to help reduce stress and improve your mood.
  • Weight loss. Exercise can help create a calorie deficit, which is what you want when it comes to losing body fat.
  • Reduction of hot flashes. Some research has found that exercise increases estrogen levels, which can decrease the severity of hot flashes.
  • Increased bone mass. Strength training and impact activities (like walking or running) can help strength the bones and prevent osteoporosis.
  • Reduced risk of high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes.

The North American Menopause Society goes even further, stating that "Exercise may cause the same magnitude of change as that induced by estrogen therapy." (The Effects of Physical Activity on Menopausal Symptoms and Metabolic Changes around Menopause) If I've convinced you how much exercise can help, it's time to get moving.

Getting Started

Even if you've never formally exercised, it's never too late to start...nor is it too late to reap the benefits. The key is to start slowly and do things you enjoy such as:

  • Walking
  • Cycling
  • Vigorous yard work
  • Swimming
  • Cardio machines
  • Group fitness classes

Strength training is equally important, especially if you want to increase your metabolism and lose body fat. You don't have to train like a bodybuilder to get the benefits, but you do need to use resistance (such as dumbbells, machines or resistance bands) and you do need to challenge your muscles and body. You might want to work with a personal trainer to get started or try this 30-Day Quick Start Guide, which includes a complete workout program for beginners.

Whatever you do, make the commitment now to become more active. Move more throughout the day, get a pedometer and start tracking your steps, get your family involved and spend some quality time with them through movement. Taking control of your health is one way to make menopause a more pleasant experience.

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