When a woman permanently stops getting her period, she has reached menopause, which is often called the "change of life." This ends a woman's ability to give birth to children, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Menopause comes with various challenges, from hot flashes to moodiness, muscle loss and weight gain. To shed light on the importance of exercise during menopause, a personal trainer offers insights on the types of exercises that can help you stay strong and healthy.
“Menopause is when several changes occur physically, mentally and emotionally in a woman's body," said Patricia Greaves, a certified fitness trainer, corrective exercise specialist and nutrition coach. "A consistent exercise routine can help women survive and thrive through menopause.”
Greaves is founder of StrongHer Personal Training, which aims to improve overall wellness for women over 40. She is also part of the Strength in Diversity Initiative, a mentoring program for trainers from marginalized communities.
A sedentary lifestyle isn't good for anyone. But if you're approaching menopause (perimenopausal) or already in menopause, being active can significantly improve your quality of life and ease some symptoms as you transition.
One study showed that menopausal women who engaged in a year-long exercise program experienced significant improvements in their mental and physical health, said Dr. Jennifer Payne, a sports medicine specialist at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health, who wrote in a Penn website. Women who did not exercise saw their symptoms worsen, the study found.
The exercise program included cardiovascular, stretching, muscle strengthening and relaxation techniques. The encouraging results led researchers to suggest that exercise should be integrated into primary health care for menopausal women, emphasizing the vital role of physical activity in this life stage.
Asked whether exercise can help with menopause symptoms, Greaves responded emphatically.
“Exercise helps to manage mood changes by releasing endorphins, the feel-good hormones," Greaves explained. "Exercise can also improve self-confidence. Achieving weight loss, increasing your strength or even training to run a 5K can be a huge self-esteem booster."
Poor sleep is another symptom that's common in menopause. Hot flashes or night sweats can wake you up feeling drenched.
“Moderate-intensity exercise can reduce the frequency of hot flashes by helping the brain regulate body temperature," Greaves said. "Sleep can also get disrupted by anxious thoughts or busy mind syndrome. Regular physical activity can help you fall asleep faster and stay sound asleep until wake time.”
"Weight-bearing exercise [such as walking, strength training] is crucial during menopause to prevent loss of bone density and reduce the risk of osteoporosis due to decreasing estrogen levels," Greaves said.
“Strength training also maintains and builds muscle mass that starts to waste by age 35," she continued. "Falling estrogen levels in menopause also increase fat gain, especially around the midsection [meno-belly]. Lifting weights and resistance training help to boost your metabolism and support a healthy weight. Body weight exercises focusing on strengthening the core muscles can alleviate low back pain and strengthen weak pelvic muscles, common in menopause.”
Recommended beginner strength exercises for women include:
“You can start with light dumbbells, then increase weight as the exercises become easy. Doing three sets of 10 to 12 reps of each exercise in a circuit two to three times a week will increase strength in less than a month,” Greaves suggested.
“Cardio or aerobic activity is also important in supporting cardiovascular health for women in menopause," she said. "Aerobic activity helps to strengthen the heart, lower blood pressure and increase good cholesterol levels, lowering the risk of coronary heart disease that increases due to hormonal changes.”
The North American Menopause Society suggests that diversifying your weekly exercise regimen is crucial to enhance your overall well-being. Here are some activities to incorporate variety into your routine:
“You can do brisk walking or swimming as a low-impact alternative to running," Greaves said. "Treadmills, ellipticals and steppers also increase your cardio activity. Aim to get 30 minutes of aerobic activity daily for the health benefits."
Another form of exercise that helps support women through menopause is flexibility and balance exercises.
“Mind-body exercises such as Pilates, yoga or tai chi support joint health, improve posture, increase core stability and coordination, reduce stress and promote a more positive mindset," Greaves said. "Including at least one weekly session of mind-body exercise is beneficial.”
Menopausal women often experience weight gain and muscle loss, even when maintaining their previous eating and exercise habits. One contributor to weight gain is inactivity. Shockingly, over 60% of U.S. adults, particularly women, do not meet recommended activity levels, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Here are some practical steps to kick-start your exercise routine during and after menopause, from Kaiser Permanente:
“Start simple by simply walking more," Greaves advised. "Get a fitness tracker and make goals to increase your daily steps. For a strength training workout, consider watching workout videos for women in midlife, or if you prefer one-to-one support, look for a personal trainer who can help you achieve specific fitness goals. You can also join local fitness classes at the gym, community center, or specialized fitness centers for Pilates or yoga.”
These tips can help you begin your journey to a healthier, more active lifestyle during and after menopause.
Patricia Greaves, fitness and nutrition coach, founder, StrongHer Personal Training
Johns Hopkins Medicine: Introduction to Menopause
Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health: Why You Should Exercise Your Way Through Menopause
The North American Menopause Society: Fitness After 40: Building the Right Workout for a Better Body
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Physical Activity and Health: A Report of the Surgeon General