Fitness has benefits for women at any age, and there is a growing amount of evidence that it is particularly beneficial to women as they get older. Specifically, we’re talking about women who are approaching or “going through” menopause, a process that starts for most women sometime in their mid-40s.
What We're Talking About When We're Talking About Menopause
When we’re talking about menopause, it’s helpful to understand some basic terms. There are three stages to the menopause process: perimenopause, menopause, and post-menopause.
Perimenopause is the period of time when you’re still menstruating but your hormones start to become chaotic. Menopause is a moment in time that’s marked by going one year without menstruating. And post-menopause is everything after that; during post-menopause, your hormones remain in a steady state, forever after.
So, what people are really referring to when they talk about “going through menopause,” is the time of perimenopause. This stage can last anywhere from a few months to over ten years. It can be marked by all sorts of very disruptive and alarming symptoms, or it can be barely noticeable. Every woman’s personal experience is different.
One experience a lot of women do share is that their primary care physician and even their OB-GYN may very likely not know much about menopause, which can lead to misdiagnoses, unhelpful treatment, and other frustrations.
They just don’t get the training. According to a recent New York Times article, menopause might be covered for an hour in medical school. The article went on to say: “When we surveyed residency programs, across internal medicine, family medicine and gynecology residents, they had maybe one or two total hours of education about menopause.”
The upshot is, you need to advocate for yourself regarding how to stay healthy. And we’re here to motivate you by providing 3 reasons why fitness will help you on this journey.
Being Fit Has Been Shown to Reduce Menopause Symptoms
I want to be clear here that we’re not claiming that if you are fit you won’t have any symptoms or that there’s some guarantee about how easy your perimenopause journey will be. That said, according to Dr. Stacy Sims, “from epidemiological research: the fitter you are, the less menopausal symptoms you have.”
If you aren’t familiar with her or her work, Dr. Sims is a name to know. She has done groundbreaking research into women’s physiology, and especially the physiology of women athletes. When Sims is talking about fitness, she's referring not just to physical activity, but all components of wellness, including nutrition, sleep, and supplementation. Because fitness isn't just about working out.
Sims, with co-author Selene Yeager, wrote the seminal book ROAR, which dedicates a chapter to menopause. The demand for more information pertaining to aging women athletes was so great, the duo is writing a book totally dedicated to menopausal years, and it’s due to be out sometime in 2021.
It’s also worth noting that Yeager hosts an outstanding podcast for menopausal athletes called “Hit Play, Not Pause.” Each episode features insightful and informative interviews with experts in the field.
Exercising Is Great, Lifting Heavy Is Better
There are two very distinctive realities about aging as a woman: you lose muscle mass and thereby strength, and you experience bone density loss and are thereby at risk of breaking bones.
Both of these concerns can be mitigated with weight lifting. Ironically, many women are encouraged to take on more low-intensity endurance activities as we age. While that's excellent for health, intensity in the form of short bursts of vigorous exercise and moving big weights have their own unique benefits and they're critical to good health.
I again turn to the deep wisdom of Dr. Sims because this is something she preaches all the time (a refrain she’s known for is “lift heavy sh%t). In an article for Outside written by Yeager, Sims is quoted as saying: “Our bodies need additional exercise stress to make up for the muscle-making stimulus our hormones, like estrogen, used to provide . . . That means not lifting light weights for 20 reps, but rather lifting heavy weights in the low three to six repetition range to really build that lean mass and maintain muscle integrity.”
Sims is not alone with this guidance. For instance, a Dr. Warren Willey, in a short but useful article for the Idaho State Journal called “Weight Lifting Benefits Peri-Menopausal Women” stated: “When a woman enters the peri-menopausal state, natural testosterone production can decrease by over 50 percent. Strength training or weight lifting has been shown both to increase testosterone production and decrease several of the symptoms related to this pre-menopausal state.”
If you're looking to get started on a strength and intensity program, it's a great time to start working with a personal trainer. Because there’s also the fact that, if you don’t know how to lift heavy sh%t safely, you can hurt yourself. It’s also really helpful to know what exercises to do, how often, the number of reps and sets, with what amount of weight, and so on. Knowledgeable guidance takes out the guesswork and increases the opportunity to get the greatest benefits.
The Boost of Being Fit
One less measurable but still important and powerful impact of maintaining fitness as you age is the fact that being fit simply helps you feel better. At a time when you can start feeling chaotic and a bit out of control, consistently attending to your fitness is something you can continue to control. Working out may feel and look different than it did 20 years ago, but it remains an area of wellness that you have the ability to improve or maintain.
Beyond the physical upsides of fitness, there are of course the mental and emotional benefits. Exercise lifts our mood. It reenergizes us. Fitness also generally makes us feel more self-confident. When you feel capable and strong in your body, that carries over into the rest of life.
Wellness For Life
Aging and the changes of menopause can get a really bad rap. Looking ahead to your older years can spark dread and fear, and it just shouldn’t. Knowing what to expect and how to adapt are really important. And one huge gift you can give yourself is fitness.
It’s never too late to start or change your wellness routine because health is always a work in progress.