Updated: May 18
OK, so if like me, you watched with intrigue the recent BBC one documentary; "The Truth About....The Menopause", you might be feeling curious about the many apparent potential symptoms you might one day (or currently) experience, and how to reduce the severity of those symptoms if at all possible. If you missed it, I really recommend catching up. In it, Mariella Frostrup provides an open and honest account of her own experiences, and speaks with scientists who are working towards uncovering the cause of hot flushes and developing a brand new drug to treat them. She also learns about a procedure that is being pioneered as potentially being able to reverse the menopause; finds out if taking hormone replacement therapy is dangerous, and even speaks with experts on the topic of male menopause. Here's a link to it if you'd like to catch it.
So What Is the Menopause?
Estrogen and progesterone are the primary female hormones related to reproduction. When ovarian function declines with age, ovulation doesn’t occur regularly. This will lead to irregular or missed periods. Most women reach this stage between 45 and 55 years of age, but menopause can occur prematurely due to surgery, chemotherapy or radiation.
‘Peri-menopause’ refers to the time from the start of symptoms associated with menopause. These can include irregular periods, hot flushes, night sweats, mood changes, depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, vaginal dryness, headaches, incontinence, and muscle and joint aches, though women’s experiences of menopause vary considerably.
In short, menopause refers to the end of menstruation and is said to have occurred when a woman has not had a period for 12 months. In total, menopause can last an average of seven years, though sometimes it can occur for longer. Aside from the absence of menstruation, menopause involves a whole host of effects on the body. Some of them can be uncomfortable (for example, hot flashes and others mentioned above), while others may go unnoticed.
A couple of further physical changes associated with the menopause are a reduction in bone density and a loss of muscle mass. Your joints may also become stiff and achy.
Although losing bone is a normal part of the ageing process, some people lose bone density much faster than normal. This can lead to osteoporosis and an increased risk of fractures.
Women lose bone rapidly in the first few years after the menopause and are more at risk of osteoporosis than men, particularly if the menopause begins early (before the age of 45).
There are many other factors that can also increase the risk of developing osteoporosis. These include; long-term use of high-dose oral corticosteroids; other medical conditions – such as inflammatory conditions, hormone-related conditions, or malabsorption problems (a lack of calcium absorbed); a family history of osteoporosis – particularly history of a hip fracture in a parent; long-term use of certain medications which can affect bone strength or hormone levels; having a low body mass index (BMI); heavy drinking and smoking.
So, is there anything we can do to limit our loss of bone density and muscle mass?
Well, the excellent news is YES! There are many lifestyle adaptations we can mindfully make to soften the transition...
Clearly I am no expert on the menopause per se, but I am able to offer some advice on one of the few natural lifestyle changes that, if applied appropriately to the individual's need and ability, has been clinically shown to help alleviate a variety of symptoms and risk factors associated with the menopause; EXERCISE
It has become more apparent to me over recent years that nutrition, exercise and relaxation are key to making this period of life more manageable.
We know that our metabolism usually naturally declines by 10% per decade as we age, for both men and women, BUT this can be addressed. It is scientifically proven that muscle requires more energy to function than fat; that is lean muscle is more metabolically-active. So, incorporating strength training in to your daily routine, will not only strengthen you bones, but will also help build lean muscle mass, keeping you burning energy long after you have even finished your workout as your body burns more calories as it repairs and grows the muscle in response to training.
Now more than ever it is important to keep moving, to lift weights and to stay nutritionally focused.
So here are my top tips.
BONE & MUSCLE HEALTH
1. Get Lifting!
A strength program that is geared towards building lean muscle, increasing bone density and keeping metabolism revved up is key.
New research shows that exercise is most effective if muscles and bones are being stressed.
2. Get Moving!
Now, in theory, stressing a bone actually requires some impact, so in an ideal
scenario, exercise such as light jogging, skipping, dancing (e.g. a Zumba class) or anything that requires a little jumping would help to stress the bones, stimulating them to regenerate and become stronger.
HOWEVER, other symptoms of menopause, such as painful joints and a reduction in natural collagen (often leading to weakened pelvic floor muscles and possible incontinence) can make these activities uncomfortable, embarrassing or even impossible.
All is not lost however. Brisk walking, exercising on an elliptical trainer or step master and/or exercise classes such as Body Conditioning in which multi-planar movements are combined with high and low impact compound exercises (exercises that use multiple muscles at once) are great alternatives. These will all help to stimulate bone and muscle strength while also improving mobility and flexibility.
It is certainly worth speaking with a Physical Trainer and/or Physiotherapist or Sports Therapist if you feel you are experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned, and would like to embark on an appropriate weight training regime. In terms of strength training and weight lifting, women need to keep in mind that the peak load on bone matters more than the number of reps. Women new to exercise and in particular weight training can find out how many reps and what load is appropriate from a physical therapist.
If however time is limited or perhaps you prefer to workout in the comfort of your own home, providing you have no physical contraindication, there is NOTHING to stop you. Body weight, resistance band and dumbbell exercises are a great place to begin, but if you are completely new to exercise, it is always worth checking with your GP first, as some conditions, such as high or low blood pressure for example should be addressed first.
Below is a series of exercises that are excellent for building strength in a safe, no fuss way, that can be incorporated in to a weekly routine. These have been proven to help reduce the risk of developing osteoporosis, improve mental health (by stimulating the release mood enhancing hormones; endorphins), and reducing weight gain (predominantly around the waistline, by increasing metabolism by increasing muscle mass).
Be sure to read the instructions by clicking on each picture and breathe throughout the movement. Never hold your breath, and always maintain good posture and core engagement with every exercise.
Food For Thought
You might have always been a pretty clean eater, ensuring a balanced diet, so why does it suddenly feel as though the weight is creeping on, especially around the waistline? Well, changes in oestrogen levels affect the structure of fat deposits in the body – moving fat more predominantly to the belly area.
Changes in diet can help to slow down the effects of menopause on muscles and bones. Eating calcium-rich foods and drinks like milk and yogurt will help to strengthen bones as women progress through menopause and move forward after menopause. Non-dairy foods with calcium include dark green vegetables, seeds, nuts, herbs and soy. You might also consider taking dietary supplements to ensure you are consuming the right amount of calcium to stay fit.
Foods with vitamin D are important as they help the body absorb and process the calcium. Some excellent sources of vitamin D include oily fish such as mackerel, salmon and tuna, as well as orange juice and eggs.
Avoiding processed food, too much sugar and simple carbohydrates can also help to alleviate some of the lethargy and sluggishness associated with these menopausal hormonal changes.
A Little Less Alcohol
Alcohol is not a menopausal friend. But do not get me wrong, I am not going to preach here. I too enjoy a drop of wine to relax, but have recently become acutely aware of it's negative affects on sleep quality. While alcohol might relax you and enable falling asleep, it unfortunately keeps you down in a very deep sleep, and that is not good because you’re not getting your REM sleep which is the sleep where you do the dreaming and the processing. You need REM sleep for your emotional health. If you're in a very, very deep sleep because of the alcohol, you’re not going to get that benefit. In addition, at some point during the night, the alcohol will start to wear off, at which point it is probable that you will wake and be very alert quite suddenly, finding it difficult to get back to sleep.
The other problem with alcohol is that it’s very dehydrating. And if you are already getting night sweats or you’re getting hot flushes, then drinking alcohol regularly is actually going to compound the problem as well.
It has also been proven that taking time each day to have some ME-TIME is beneficial in recharging and maintaining a sense of control over the symptoms that can sometimes feel so overwhelming. Conscious breathing (as described in another of my blogs) is a great way to re-centre thoughts and feelings and has been shown to reduce the severity of hot flashes experienced by some women. Even talking about the symptoms you experience with others can be enormously helpful in normalising and promoting a greater understanding that you are not alone.
Unfortunately, diet and exercise cannot completely prevent the symptoms of menopause; but they may help to slow down their course. Breeze Sports Therapy classes and Personal Training Services are designed to challenge and improve all of the facets of your health needs, and improve movement function.
If you have any specific needs or concerns that you would like to discuss, a one-to-one session is advisable, where we will be able to work together to develop the most appropriate exercise routine for you in order to safely build the foundation for strong, flexible and well balanced musculoskeletal and neuromuscular systems, that will support you in movement for the rest of your life.