It keeps you flexible
There’s a ton of research to show that exercise helps improve balance and flexibility in the elderly, and also lessens the risk of falls. There is less evidence on menopause in particular, but it makes sense that the earlier you start, the better. One study which put women on an eight week Pilates programme – an hour’s class, three times a week – showed that it made them more flexible. There’s also great evidence for yoga as well as tai chi and qigong, gentle moves that are easy to adjust for any level of fitness.
Exercise protects against weight gain
There’s an assumption that weight gain in your 40s and 50s is bound to happen. And it’s true that hormonal shifts change your body composition – more fat, less muscle and bone, increasing the amount of abdominal fat. Don’t we all know it.
This doesn’t have to be the case: Regular exercise will slow down the rate of weight gain. In one study, the women who kept up their exercise had smaller increases in weight and waist size. And due to its effect on abdominal fat, exercise is likely to reduce your risk of cancer and diabetes, too.
So how much exercise is enough? In a long term study with 13 years of follow-up, the women who maintained normal weight did exercise equivalent to 60 minutes a day of moderate intensity activity. Get walking!
It helps keep your brain healthy
Exercise is great for the brain. You might think of oestrogen as a sex hormone but, in fact, it’s important for your brain too, specifically attention, learning and memory.
Brain symptoms of menopause – forgetting, brain fog, lack of concentration – can be really worrying. There’s some evidence that regular exercise may offset this lack of oestrogen. And there’s lots of evidence that exercise is good for cognitive function in both older men and women, too.
It builds bone
You’ve likely heard of the link between menopause and risk of osteoporosis. And you probably know that building stronger bones now will mean less likelihood of fractures in later life.
You get the most bone benefits from two types of moves: 1) Resistance. That means weight, whether it’s your body or what you pick up. 2) Impact. That’s a bang or a bounce, because it’s the stress on your skeleton that tells it to rebuild itself stronger.
One study in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research found that just 30 minutes twice a week of high intensity resistance and impact training made a difference to bone density, structure and strength.
So, what works? Training with weights is very good, or you could try doing exercise where you lift your own bodyweight, such as yoga and Pilates. Swimming doesn’t build bone (although it is good for cardiovascular health and building muscle). Walking – especially downhill – does build bone, although not as much as skipping, dancing, running or jumping.
It improves mood and mental health
Low mood, anxiety and depression can be some of the most difficult menopausal symptoms to deal with. The risk for depression is higher when you reach midlife, even if you’ve never had symptoms before. Then there’s the fact that women have a lower threshold for stress at this time.
There’s plenty of evidence that exercise helps with mental health generally, but what about at this time in particular? In one study of women aged 40-62, who were peri and postmenopausal, three sessions a week on a treadmill, elliptical trainer or stationary bicycle for 12 weeks led to improvements in sleep quality and depressive symptoms.
It reduces joint pain
A lot of women report joint pain of the back, hips, knees, fingers and toes. Exercise appears to be helpful, although it’s worth seeing your doctor in order to find the cause before you start an exercise programme, as it may not just be due to hormones.
A study of over 6000 women in the journal Arthritis Care & Research, showed that regular physical exercise can reduce pain. Those who were sporadic, low or never exercisers were more likely to have more joint symptoms while the regular exercisers weren’t. This finding was most obvious for those women who were obese, but also true for women of other weights, too.
It reduces the risk of heart disease
Often, along with the menopause, comes an increased risk of heart disease and a drop in aerobic fitness. If you keep exercising, you can prevent this.
In one study, 30 overweight and postmenopausal women were put on an eight-week programme of Spring Interval Training (SIT) on stationary bikes. The idea behind all kinds of interval training – alternating very hard exercise with less effort – is that it gives you maximum results in minimum time. Admittedly, this is pretty hardcore – you have to go as hard as you can for eight seconds, then pedal as normal for 12. For 20 minutes! However, the results showed it was worth it, with improved aerobic fitness and cardiovascular function. That said, all exercise will be helpful, especially doing both aerobic (gets you out of breath) and resistance (lifting yourself or your body).