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Exercise in menopause — can it really help?

Written by Sonia Hennessy, Bella Femme Fitness 

Menopause is defined as the final menstrual period. Generally, it’s considered that a woman is ‘post menopause’ when she has had no menstrual cycle for 12 continuous months. During this time, a woman’s oestrogen levels drop significantly. Up to 90% of a woman’s oestrogen is lost during the menopause period. 

The menopause period can come with many symptoms, which are often dramatized in the media. There is much mention of hot flushes and general lack of wellbeing. There is rarely much discussion on the lifestyle behaviours that can help the menopause symptoms and also help a woman’s quality of life post menopause.

In addition to the symptoms of menopause that some women experience, women become at greater risk of cardiovascular disease and broken bones due to the drop in estrogen levels.

One of lifestyle behaviour that can not only improve quality of life but lower the risk of these health conditions is exercise. Physical activity during and after the menopausal period is thought to be of great benefit for women.

Women often are at risk of falls as they age. There are two reasons that increase this risk, one being the loss of muscle due to the aging process and the second the loss of estrogen which increases weakness in bones.

Physical activity, especially strength training, can help to mitigate the falls-risk as women age. Strength training has been shown to increase bone density and is well known to increase muscle mass.

What’s the benefit of that? Less risk of falling and breaking bones means more independence, better quality sleep, more energy and overall feeling better!

Unfortunately, the current culture of the fitness industry doesn’t help women who are in or post the menopause period. Much of the fitness industry still trains menopausal women like a 20-year-old male. This is not helpful.

So, while exercise and strength training are hugely beneficial for women during and post menopause, that doesn’t mean you have to feel like joining the latest gym craze.

A simple formula to work towards,

- 2-3 x weightlifting sessions a week with a provider who knows about the menopause period. 

- 5 x aerobic sessions a week. This can be walking or more high-intensity aerobic exercise. But, keep it low impact. The loss of estrogen means many women will experience sore joints with too much high impact exercise. 

Other forms of activity to consider are walking, swimming, dancing, jogging, or bike riding. Research also suggests that women who are post menopause need to exercise 60 minutes a day.

That’s a big ask for many women, so don’t feel you go straight to 60 minutes every day. See it as a behaviour to work towards. Start with 10 minutes a day and work up.

Strength training, lifting weights, is the big one many women aren’t aware about. Not only to help maintain weight but it helps prevent osteoporosis, which becomes a greater risk when estrogen levels drop during menopause.

As a basic guide, when strength training, you should choose a weight or resistance level that tires out your muscles after about 10 - 12 repetitions, and then gradually increase that level over time as you feel yourself getting stronger. 
Remember when strength training to educate yourself on good pelvic floor activation. We want to prevent bladder leakage, not cause it!

Lift weights, get out walking and enjoy the menopause period! Life is to be lived and enjoyed, don’t let the concept of aging get in the way of having a fulfilled and active life.

Sonia Hennessy is a specialised women’s health personal trainer and health coach. She has a staunchly anti-diet approach and started Bella Femme Fitness as a way to address the harmful effects of the current culture of the fitness industry. Bella Femme Fitness operates a personal training studio for women in Gisborne, Macedon Ranges, Victoria, Australia, helping women get fit and strong mentally and physically.