As a cardiologist, I see a lot of menopausal and postmenopausal women. When estrogen starts taking a nosedive around age 50, a woman’s heart becomes more vulnerable to disease. Not to mention that she often just starts feeling out of sorts with all the awful symptoms that menopause can unload on women. That’s why I always tell my patients about the real benefits of frequent exercise to relieve menopausal symptoms and protect their heart as well as their brain. Here’s what you should know…
Menopause Woes: Exercise Helps Banish Them
Menopause is not just the decrease of the hormone estrogen. It can also mean a decrease in strength of a woman’s muscles and bones, decrease in tone and brightness of her skin, a decrease in happy moods, memory, concentration, and a decrease in the protection of her heart. Menopause symptoms are really the symptoms of premature aging brought on by decline in hormones. It’s depressing just thinking about it isn’t it?
Well, the uplifting news is that, there is something natural you can do that gives tangible, restorative health benefits. It’s called exercise and it has been proven in research to help add back function loss that low estrogen causes.
Without getting too clinical and detailed, I’d like to tell you how exercise affects your estrogen stores. Women both make and store estrogen from their fat cells. When menopause occurs, circulating blood levels of estrogen drop and you start storing more body fat, as well as estrogen, especially around your abdomen. It’s just a guess on my part, but this likely is a genetic, protective mechanism for women to not completely crash when menopause hits.
For example, if you were somewhat overweight at the onset of your menopause, you likely had less intense hot flashes than your thinner counterpart. If you were more physically active, and did even a moderate amount of exercise, you likely released more estrogen from your fat cells and your symptoms were less intense.
Exercise not only helps you burn fat but it helps release stored estrogen. It does this through a somewhat complicated process of stimulating a substance called HSL (hormone sensitive lipase). In aerobic exercise, your body temperature increases as does your epinephrine levels. These, in turn, stimulate HSL to breakdown fat. Your estrogen levels help power this process.
As you breakdown fat, you also release estrogen from your fat stores. This helps decrease menopausal symptoms. It also protects you against breast cancer (by decreasing estrogen stores), heart disease and brain dysfunction. If you exercise regularly, 30 minutes a day, 4 times a week, you’ll be able to greatly offset the effects of menopause. Here are some more benefits:
1. Better mood. Exercise also helps release “feel good” endorphins and oxytocin which does the same thing as prescription “mood elevator” drugs. Many menopausal women are handed prescriptions for these to combat depression and irritability. Yet, exercise gives them to you at no cost and without side effect.
2. Better sleep, less hot flashes. Women who exercise regularly have less trouble with the insomnia that bothers many menopausal women. You may have noticed that you experience more intense, frequent hot flashes when you feel stressed. Exercise burns off stress and decreases severity of hot flashes. It also helps decrease that “wired, on edge” feeling.
3. Better concentration. Exercise helps all older people think better as it improves “executive function”. This is a group of mental skills that govern memory, task juggling, planning. The decline in estrogen can really wreak havoc with these tasks. So the more you can release estrogen/burn fat through exercise, the better your cognitive function will be too. A University of Illinois study found that menopausal women who had the highest fitness levels, and didn’t take hormone replacement therapy, were protected against brain tissue loss and its symptoms.
The Best Exercise to Help Menopause Symptoms
So now that you know how beneficial exercise can be to helping you decrease menopausal symptoms, here are 5 great forms of exercise that can help you the most:
1. Resistance exercise. This is lifting weights, working out with resistance bands, and doing whole body workouts like TRX, Fit Bar, even yoga. This helps you not only strengthen muscles but burns fat and ups your metabolic rate so you can burn more fat. 20 minutes 3-4 times a week.
2. Aerobic exercise. A little aerobic exercise goes a long way. No more than 30 minutes a day, 4 times a week. This can be running on a treadmill or outside, doing elliptical or similar machines at the gym, swimming, cycling, rebounding, etc. Interval-type aerobic exercise seems to work the best for burning the most fat in the shortest period of exercise time.
3. Relaxation exercise. This helps you stay active and also relaxes you. It can be group dance (like Zumba, Hip Hop, ballet, Bolly Fit, etc) or even dancing with a partner ballroom style. Yoga and Fit Bar exercise can also be relaxation type exercise.
4. Staying Active. Sitting for long periods of time during your day are real detriments to your heart, brain, blood sugar levels, and your mood. Engage in some physical work, even if it’s just cleaning your house or doing lawn or garden work. Standing more, versus sitting, even counts.
5. Creativity Exercise. This exercise is for your brain. Learn a second language, take up painting, a musical instrument, knitting, woodworking, anything that fires up your brain cells can help fight “brain fog” of menopause.
Menopause symptoms can hit women hard. Exercise, in its various forms outlined here, can help decrease your symptoms, strengthen your bones and muscles, keep your heart and brain healthy, help you sleep better, make you feel better/happier, and even make you look younger!
Ron Blankstein, M.D.
Exercise, Estrogen and Executive Function, http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsweek/exercise-estrogen-and-executive-function.htm
Women’s Weight Loss and Estrogen, http://www.paleoforwomen.com/the-physiology-of-womens-weight-loss-part-i-estrogen/