Discussing Menopause is back, my monthly column where I debunk common menopause myths and questions. This month, I'm examining the research on the link between exercise and menopause - keep scrolling for your need-to-knows.
The best bit of the week, once I've dragged myself out of bed, is my Saturday morning run around the muddy lanes of Somerset. It's frequently wet, and sometimes so cold my fingers go numb, but running with friends gives me a post-exercise glow of energy (helped by excellent chat) that lasts all day.
It's no revelation that exercise is good for us. But perhaps you don't realise that exercising now is banking better health for your future. When it comes to perimenopause and beyond, this is one investment that won't fail.
"There are so many benefits," says Dr. Samantha Wild, Women’s Health Lead and GP at Bupa Health Clinics. "During perimenopause and menopause, exercise has been proven to reduce symptoms, particularly low mood, anxiety, sleep, and joint stiffness, and some studies say that it can reduce hot flushes and night sweats." (Read my explainer on when menopause starts, here).
Long-term, studies have proven that it also helps to maintain bone, muscle mass, and heart health - so it's really a no-brainer.
Exercise and menopause: so, what's the link, really?
"Official guidelines recommend 150 minutes of aerobic exercise a week, as well as two resistance, or weight-bearing, sessions," says Dr Wild.
This sounds like an awful lot in our already packed lives, but she suggests multitasking by, for example, running whilst wearing light ankle and wrist weights, and adding in squats, lunges, and curls.
Her top tip? "Try and get to the end of the week having worked every muscle group twice."
Exercise boosts both body and mind
It's not just about your physical health, though - far from it. The link between exercise and mental health is another big reason to lace up your trainers. Exercise releases the feel-good hormones called endorphins - that's why you feel so great after a workout (smugness is a personal choice).
I love doing Pilates if I'm feeling stressed - it's also great for flexibility, muscle tone, and balance. Yoga expert Petra Coveney runs classes for peri to postmenopause. "We include specific practices tailored to cool hot flushes, calm your mind, ease insomnia, and reenergise," she says. "Menopause yoga is a holistic practice that supports bones, balance, heart and mental health."
Exercise improves bone health
Perhaps you feel too young to worry about osteoporosis, or thinning bones. But it's never too soon to consider bone health, and weight-bearing exercise is absolutely vital.
Weight-bearing means that you are working against gravity to stimulate calcium deposits - preventing bone loss, and even building new bone.
"In the seven to ten years post menopause you can lose as much as 20 percent of your bone density," says Dr. Karen Hind, director of clinical affairs at Medimaps Group. "Up to the age of forty, you can build bone mass with a good diet and exercise. During perimenopause, the goal is to maintain it."
The Royal Osteoporosis Society helpfully categorises exercise; low impact is brisk walking, medium impact is running and team and racket sports. High impact might include star jumps and basketball.
Maintaining muscle mass is equally important - it goes down from around our mid-twenties. As well as supporting stronger bones, muscle mass is associated with general good health. "A big fear is bulking up," says personal trainer Kate Rowe-Ham, who creates workouts for menopausal women.
"In reality, when you weight train, you're building lean muscle mass," she shares. If that's not enough reason to get going, remember that muscle burns more calories than fat, which improves the metabolism.
"I find weight training is like meditation," adds Kate. "You're focusing so hard on what you're doing. It's a good way of switching off."
And you don't have to join an expensive gym with today's Zoom-enabled workouts. "You can do weight training just as easily at home."
Exercise is key for a healthy heart
Ready to get your heart pumping? "Oestrogen protects the heart, but postmenopause, twice as many women die from coronary heart disease as from breast cancer,"reminds Kate.
"Aerobic exercise keeps blood pressure and cholesterol down, and also reduces the risk of diabetes," says Dr Wild. You don't have to go full lycra - she says that very brisk dog walking (so brisk that "you can't speak in sentences") counts. So does running, swimming, cycling, and tennis, and the British Heart Foundation also counts gardening and housework.
This is useful stuff. Next time I'm feeling resentful about cleaning the kitchen or running up and down the stair with clean washing, I'll remind myself that it's exercise!
Remember to focus on inner strength, too
In other words, don't ignore your pelvic floor. This vital area also needs a daily workout. "About 20 percent of young women wet themselves, but few talk about it," says physiotherapist Elaine Miller, who specialises in pelvic floor health.
"It can usually be cured with pelvic floor exercises (and if not, then physio). These are easy to learn, free to do and the only side effect is (probably) an improved orgasm!"
Her website provides the most comprehensive explanation I've ever found - "Take a deep breath in, sigh out. As you sigh out, #squeezeandlift your bum-hole. Hold it shut for a count of 10 seconds and keep breathing."
Shop some of my go-to exercise aids
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Alice Smellie is a British health writer and co-writer of Cracking the Menopause. She writes a monthly column for Marie Claire UK, called Discussing Menopause, where she breaks down common menopause myths with some of the best experts in the business. She's also the co-founder of the campaign group Menopause Mandate.
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