Exercise and the Menopause

I was asked to write a short article about the menopause and exercise by a company who was not only acknowledging World Menopause Day but also embracing it with lots of information and education.  When I was writing this however, I was not really sure who my audience will be.  Will the people who read these words be women at this stage of their lives who already exercise and welcome the advice I have to offer?  Will it be women who are at this stage of life but don’t exercise and my words don’t resonate?  Will it be men who have partners who will benefit from reading this article?  Will most people, male or female, flick passed it because it just doesn’t affect them at all?  I’m not sure I will find out, but I wanted to share it with anyone who follows me; I am so grateful for having this small space to offer some help and basic explanations as to what we should be doing when the menopause tsunami hits.

The menopause has gone viral!  We have trending hashtags and popular celebrities doing all they can to raise awareness and we are finally talking about it with our friends, family, and our employers but what exactly is the menopause?  There are three main stages under the menopause umbrella:

  1. Peri menopause. This is the 5 years or so leading up to the cessation of menstruation.  The key hormones that affect us are oestrogen and progesterone and their fluctuations bring on a lot of the common symptoms such as mood swings, hot flushes, sleepless nights.    This is however the best time to make changes to your exercise!
  2. The Menopause. Menopause is used widely to refer to the whole stage of life but in fact it is one specific point in time and is technically the point at which a women has not had a period for 12 months. 
  3. Post Menopause. This is basically the biological stage for the rest of our lives and is where oestrogen and progesterone flatline.

This whole process is part of the natural transition in life and up until now, the language used around menopause has been negative.  This is actually a new era for us women and the men that are supporting us and we should embrace it because let’s face it; we don’t have a choice!

To reach this point in time, generations of women before us have suffered at the hands of uninformed and unsympathetic health care professionals and workplaces and for those of us in it right now, isn’t every day World Menopause Day? Many of us are battling hot flushes, brain fog, fatigue, mood swings and sleeplessness, seemingly overnight changes in body composition plus a whole list of other symptoms that are much less discussed such as depression, anxiety, joint pain, low libido, dry skin and so many more that are no less valid and just as awful.  This is us right now and it feels good that we are no longer the invisible population!!  We want more knowledge and information so that our suffering can be reduced.

Why am I so passionate about all of this anyway?  I am a UK Athletics Running Coach and an Ironman Coach, whilst also being a Level 3 Personal Trainer and a Nutrition Advisor.  I am also 48 and slap bang in the middle of peri menopause.   I like to run a lot but during the last couple of years it has all felt different.  I am tired. Anxious.  Aching joints.  Niggles that just wouldn’t sort themselves out.  I felt like I was in a cycle of being permanently under recovered and injured. It took time before I finally accepted that the training that used to work for me now didn’t.  I knew I needed to help myself and fix this.  I needed to turn things around. 

I have educated myself.  I have completed a course called Menopause for Athletes by Dr Stacy Sims. I took the course to not only help myself but to help the athletes I coach too.   This course and the associated books and podcasts that I have immersed myself in are heavily science based and the science is telling us that exercise is good!  Exercise can help mitigate the constant effects of our yoyoing hormones. 

I may just pause here to acknowledge that everyone views exercise from their own standpoint.  For some, exercise might be walking their dog.  For others, it might be a 100 mile ultramarathon.  If you exercise on purpose, whether that is Joe Wicks in your living room, a spin class at the gym or weekend hill walking – then you are considered an athlete and everything in this short article applies to you, but it would still need phasing into your current routine.  If the exercise you are doing is working for you, then great.  Stick with it; why wouldn’t you?  But if you have found you are no longer getting the results you once had, or if you are struggling with energy levels, recovery, motivation, then it might be time to change things up. 

Based on science, here are three types of exercise to try to phase into your current exercise regime and why you should include them. 

  1. Strength Training.

If you do nothing else start strength training.  Muscle mass is an important factor that determines how active a life you can live.  Age related muscle mass decline is natural in both men and women.  From the age of 30 it starts to nosedive but for women, the greatest decrease is during peri menopause and into menopause when the signalling from oestrogen which used to drive the building of muscle, starts fluctuating and ultimately flatlining.  The more we can do to slow down this loss the better; if not for our own strength and fitness now, than for our future selves who still need to get up out of chairs, climb stairs or lift grandchildren. 

Oestrogen directly effects the strength of muscle contractions and so when it starts to decrease during perimenopause, our muscle contractions are not as strong.  To mimic this loss of contraction we need to lift heavy.  Define heavy?  A weight heavy enough to lift 5-6 times with good form but the last 2 reps are a struggle.  That is heavy lifting and it will be different for every single one of us. Start where you are and not where you want to be or think you should be and definitely seek help from a Fitness Instructor or Personal Trainer for instruction on safe lifting.  If you have access to a gym and have lifted before, opt for lifts that work more than one body part such as deadlifts or chest press.  You will get a bigger bang for your buck with these sorts of movements but if you are not quite there yet, do what you can with what you have got; squats with dumbbells, single leg deadlifts with kettle bells or dumbbells, bench press on the floor using dumbbells.  Lifting heavy will help the muscle get stronger, which then has enormous benefits later on in life. 

  1. Plyometric work.

Otherwise known as jump training.  Sounds scary and potentially injury inducing and it can be so start really easy.  Try with a minute or two of skipping with a rope or skipping without a rope.  Or some little jumps side to side.    Progress to squat jumps and box jumps.  Why are we jumping around like kids?  Because oestrogen and progesterone help build bone density and guess what?  During menopause, whilst they are wildly fluctuating, we lose that stimulus for modelling a strong skeleton, making us more at risk of osteoporosis.  Multi directional jumping has been scientifically proven to help build bone.  We need this in our life but please start out slowly and seek help from a Personal Trainer if you are in any doubt.

  1. High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) or Sprint Interval Training (SIT).

This type of training is short and sharp and doesn’t need to be done more than 2-3 times per week for 10-15 mins initially.  This sort of training alternates short periods of intense anaerobic work with recovery for example 30s on 15s off.  You can do it on a bike, swimming, running, rowing, using a cross trainer.  I ask you to use some common sense here too; if you are not a runner, don’t go out and start doing sprints.  Work it into what you already do.  The only rule is that the high intensity part needs to be close to a 10/10 in effort.  It is hard!  Why do we need this seemingly torturous activity in our life?  HIIT can improve hot flushes!  It also manages stress and is a very strong stimulus to decrease any body fat.  It also improves our cognition and once we have caught our breathe, it feels great!

A note on Personal Trainers and Coaches.  We as peri and menopausal women are driving this huge movement towards raising awareness of our needs.  Don’t be afraid to ask your coach or PT what they know about training our age group.  Most of us in this age bracket need very specific training; asking for this specific helps show that there is a market for suitably qualified trainers and will hopefully encourage more to step up and educate themselves. 

Slowly but surely we are changing the narrative around this time of our life and moving away from all the negative associations; did you know that during the Puritan times, the witches hunted and burned at the stake were peri and menopausal women who were accused of witchcraft because they were using herbal remedies to try to treat other women!  The language surrounding menopause is changing as we accept and celebrate that this is a natural stage in our lives.  It is not something to be whispered about in embarrassed hushed tones, we want to talk about it and share what we are going through and more importantly, how we are coping and what we are doing to make ourselves feel better.  This is empowering.  Forgive me if I’m wrong here, but growing old is the goal here isn’t it? Our best days are still ahead of us.