Menopause commonly refers to the time both before and after a woman’s last menstrual period. It is diagnosed when a woman has not had a menstrual period for 12 months. The stage immediately prior to menopause is referred to as “peri-menopause” and the time following menopause is referred to as “post-menopause.”
Menopause and changing hormone levels can last for more than 10 years and women may experience fluctuating hormone levels. The hormonal changes can be responsible for disruptions which may include hot flashes, sleep disruption, weight gain, loss of libido, short-term memory impairment, increased anxiety, fatigue, depression and mood swings, joint/muscle aches and pains, vaginal changes, osteoporosis, and cardiovascular disease. Most of these can be lessened with an effective exercise program.
Research has verified the positive effects of exercise and physical activity on reducing menopausal symptoms. The positive outcomes resulting from regular exercise and/or physical activity programs include increased cardiovascular fitness, improvements in body composition, decreased anxiety and depression, and enhanced feelings of well-being. Additionally, exercise and/or physical activity has, in some cases, been shown to decrease feelings of fatigue and chronic muscle pain, improve quality and duration of sleep, and increase or minimize loss of bone density.
Activities such as brisk walking, cycling or water aerobics that elevate your heart rate and break a sweat while still able to carry on a conversation improve cardiovascular fitness.
Starting an exercise program can be difficult, especially during a time when hormonal fluctuations result in a variety of physiological and psychological changes. The key is to remember that the main goal is to boost your health and minimize any symptoms brought about by natural body changes. It is important to choose activities that you enjoy.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 30 minutes a day, five days a week (or 150 minutes per week). Even short bouts of exercise lasting at least 10 minutes can be accumulated toward the 30-minutes-per-day goal. In addition to cardiovascular exercise, strength training two times a week with at least eight exercises of 8 to 12 repetitions working the whole body can result in positive outcomes (Garber et al, 2011).
For cardiovascular and strength training exercises, make sure to increase the amount of exercise gradually, starting with realistic amounts and moving toward achieving the minimum recommendations. Of course, exercising more than the minimum recommendations is helpful in minimizing symptoms of menopause. More is better!
Recent research has suggested that adding High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) to an exercise regimen can provide even more improvement in bone density, body composition and regulation of mood. Once a consistent exercise regimen has been established, try adding one day of a higher intensity activity but for less time. For example, after a 5-10 minute warm up, ramp up your intensity for 1-2 minutes then back down to a moderate level for 3-5 minutes and keep repeating throughout the exercise bout. For the higher intensity, push yourself so you may have a harder time talking or work your way up to this level. One recent study published in the journal Menopause suggested 10 one-minute bouts of HIIT could lead to quick improvement in cardiopulmonary function for postmenopausal women (Klonizakis et al, 2014).
It is important to consult your physician on a regular schedule as peri-menopause approaches and work with him or her to balance the changing needs of your body. Be sure to use exercise to help manage complications brought about by this life change.