Understanding your body is key to managing menopausal symptoms and training at your very best. We get expert advice on how to exercise during the menopause
As a woman, there are lots of physiological changes that can affect your exercise routine. And a big one is the menopause. We know that exercise can help us to manage the many, many symptoms that can come with the menopause, but it’s not always easy to know where to start.
So, we asked some experts to help us out. We speak to GP and fitness expert Dr Folusha Oluwajana to find out more about what the menopause actually is. She also tells us how we might want to adjust our training during this time. Nutritionist Louise Pyne covers how we can support our bodies with food – scroll down to read.
Want to know more about the menopause and running? Try How will menopause symptoms affect my running?
The menopause explained
All woman are born with a finite number of eggs, or oocytes, within their ovaries. “During the menstrual cycle, ovarian follicles develop and usually one oocyte matures within a follicle, to become an ovum. The ovum is then released during ovulation to either be fertilised by a sperm, or if not, eventually shed during a period,” explains GP and fitness expert Dr Folusha Oluwajana.
“As we age, the number of oocytes in our ovaries naturally declines. It is estimated the average woman is born with one to two million oocytes, 400,000 of which will reach puberty, and only 400 will experience ovulation.”
According to stats from the NHS, the menopause normally occurs between the ages of 45 and 55, but in around one per cent of women in the UK, it happens before the age of 40. There are three distinct phases. Peri-menopause describes the years leading up to menopause when oestrogen levels are reducing but may fluctuate. This period can last for several months to years.
The second phase is actual menopause; it’s when a woman has not had a period for one year if over 50 years old, or two years if under 50 years old. And then there’s post-menopause, the period after menopause when you may still suffer side effects. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to menopause; we are all unique individuals, so the type and severity of menopausal symptoms that a woman suffers varies.
The side effects of menopause
Although it might not always be the easiest transition, the menopause is a normal life phase. Most women start to experience the first symptoms during their 40s. There is some evidence pointing to certain factors which make it more likely to start peri-menopause at an earlier age. These include a family history of early menopause, smoking, and having a hysterectomy. Some women may use HRT (hormone replacement therapy) to manage symptoms.
Some of the most common side effects include hot flushes and night sweats. These are experienced by approximately three quarters of women during perimenopause. “Low and fluctuating oestrogen levels affect temperature regulation processes and blood vessel dilation (blood vessels dilate to help cool us down). Your body’s core temperature rises but your blood vessels do not dilate as usual to help cool you down. Your body then uses excess perspiration to reduce your body temperature, causing a hot flush,” explains Dr Oluwajana. And as oestrogen levels begin to decline, you might also find it difficult to sleep, suffering night sweats. This can affect the quality of slumber time and the amount of hours rest you’re able to get.
While none of these things might be very desirable, exercise can be a really helpful way of managing the side effects of menopause.
Exercising and the menopause
“Menopause shouldn’t be a sign to stop your running or other forms of exercise. Many menopausal women are able to continue active lifestyles and if you do suffer from disruptive symptoms, there are things you can do to help,” explains Dr Oluwajana.
Physiological changes during menopause mean that you might need to alter your training to suit your specific needs. However, there is absolutely no need to stop training as long as you’re in good health. There are also lots of benefits of exercising during this time that can help to counteract some of the side effects of the menopause.
And if you’re completely new to exercise, don’t let the menopause put you off lacing up your trainers for the first time. Even moderate activity can help to bring about health benefits. The key is to start slowly and not to over-exert. Your activity rate should be fast enough to feel your heart pumping without being out of breath or feeling fatigued.
What exercise should I be doing?
Exercise that focuses on maintaining bone density and mass are important throughout our lives, but there is more significance when we reach our 40s and beyond. “Weight-bearing exercise such as running actually improves bone density and makes your bones stronger,” says Dr Oluwajana. This is an important factor in staving off osteoporosis, a condition that over three million people in the UK suffer from and the risk of which increases at menopause.
Adding other weight-bearing activities to your exercise routine, such as resistance training with weights (particularly heavy weights) or regular yoga are also good activities to help minimise loss of bone density throughout the body. Resistance training also preserves and increases muscle mass, which is lost at a faster rate as women go through menopause.
Taking rest is equally as crucial as physical activity, as your body needs time to recover from each exercise session. Listen to your body cues (fatigue, aches and pains), and you will soon learn how to identify when you need to relax and recuperate.
What should I eat?
Following a balanced diet is important during menopause. Eating three nutrient-rich meals a day along with two healthy snacks will make sure your energy levels are fuelled up and help to restore balance to your body. “A poor diet has a negative impact on both your physical and mental wellbeing and that can compound any menopausal symptoms you experience. Therefore it’s important to ensure you’re eating a healthy, balanced, nutrient-rich diet,” adds Dr Oluwajana.
Getting enough protein is important to help maintain muscle mass which may take a dip during menopause, so load up on meat and fish along with plant-based sources such as nuts and seeds.
Healthy fats such as those found in oils like olive and coconut should form part of your daily diet. They help to support brain and joint health as well as balancing hormones which can help to alleviate menopausal symptoms.
Plant foods that are a source of phytoestrogens (compounds that mimic the effects of oestrogen) can also be really helpful during menopause. These include chickpeas, ground flaxseeds and unprocessed soy.
Filling up your shopping basket with lots of vegetables should be top of your priority list, too. And it could be more effective than investing in supplements. A study of more than 17,000 menopausal women found that those who ate more fruits and vegetables experienced a 19 per cent reduction in hot flushes and night sweats.
That being said, it’s recommended that we supplement with vitamin D, to help protect our bones. “Vitamin D is a hormone that is essential for calcium absorption and bone mineralisation, when calcium is laid down in our bones to increase bone density and strength,” says Dr Oluwajana.
What should I avoid eating?
Just as there are certain foods that you should eat during the menopausal transition, there are certain foods that experts recommend avoiding. Sugar increases blood sugar levels and this has a negative effect on hormones, so make sure to limit processed foods and stay away from trans fats, as these are known to contribute to heart disease.
Finally, excess caffeine should be avoided as it interferes with calcium absorption, and that can weaken bones. If you’re a two-or-more cups a day kind of woman (like us!), opt for a decaf. Herbal teas such as peppermint, chamomile and fennel have also been suggested to offer calming benefits during this time.