Alrighty folks, we’re diving back into the world of female physiology this week. This time however, we’re looking at the opposite end of the menstrual cycle – menopause!
First thing’s first - what is menopause?
We’ve all heard the stories, right? The hot flushes, midnight sweats, mood and sleep disturbances, vaginal irritation, and all of the other ‘delightful’ symptoms that make menopause seem all the more unappealing. And while the majority of women do experience some, and if not most, of these symptoms during menopause, this is an incredibly important phase in the life cycle, where the effects of which should certainly not be overlooked.
Menopause signifies the cessation of regular menstrual cycles, and subsequently, of ovarian reproductive function. While ‘natural’ menopause tends to hit at around the age of 50, this age varies from individual to individual, and early onset can be triggered by a range of factors, including chemotherapy, hysterectomies, and several lifestyle-related risk factors. When menopause occurs naturally, the hormonal fluctuations that regulate the menstrual cycles declines, terminating reproductive processes, and indicating the completion of the fertile phase of a woman’s life. In short, periods stop once a woman has passed her prime ‘baby carrying years.’
Sounds great, doesn’t it (no more periods, who wouldn’t be stoked?!)?
Well, yes. And no.
With these hormonal changes also comes a lot of physiological changes, and not necessarily positive ones.
If you can remember back to our previous blog on exercise and the menstrual cycle, you’ll recall that we spoke about how important oestrogen was for maintaining skeletal bone density and strength.
With menopause, however, the subsequent declines in hormonal fluctuations – including oestrogen – heightens the risk of bone density issues. This means that the creation of new bone matter cannot keep up with the breakdown of old bone matter, leading to issues such as bone fractures and osteoporosis.
Why is this so important?
Well, with a continually ageing population, falls and fractures are some of the leading causes of injury and hospitalisation in older adults. These incidences can also have hugely negative impacts on a person’s quality of life, and greatly inhibit their ability to perform normal daily activities.
Scary, isn’t it?
Fortunately, however, fractures are also pretty preventable if we can get onto the physical causes early enough.
Okay, so what can we do to prevent falls and fractures in post-menopausal women?
Well, while there are a number of dietary and hormonal replacement therapy techniques out there – the simplest thing a person can do, today, to prevent future bone loss is: Strength Training.
Research has shown, time and time again, that loading skeletal bones by lifting weights and performing resistance training through body weight exercises can help prevent future declines in bone matter, and in extreme cases, slow the rate of natural deterioration. Put simply, placing extra load on the bones forces additional bone matter to be deposited to respond to the training stimulus – offsetting some of the natural declines of menopause.
So, all I need to do is lift as heavy as possible and I won’t ever have another fracture?!
Unfortunately, we can’t guarantee that you won’t have another fracture in your life, or that you won’t develop osteoporosis after menopause. However, just as we can’t guarantee that you won’t ever get lung cancer in your life, but not smoking tobacco is a darn good way of preventing it, regularly, and safely, loading your body is a great step to preventing bone fractures and falls when you get older.
This doesn’t mean, however, that you need to sign up to start powerlifting tomorrow. What it does mean, is that beginning with some body weight exercises might be a good start for someone who is new to strength work or returning to resistance training after a break. Or, if you’re someone who is already quite active, heading into the gym for a strength session a couple of times a week can help maintain your muscular and skeletal health.
Bear in mind though, that only doing push-ups, or only squats, won’t give you the best possible outcome. Working your upper body alone won’t help maintain the bone density in your lower body, just as lower body exercises won’t help to improve the skeletal health of your upper body. Whatever approach you choose, needs to have a whole-body focus, and incorporate a number of different movements and body parts to give yourself the best possible adaptations and improvements.
So, what about the other aspects of fitness? Here’s where things start to get a bit more unknown.
Traditionally, menopause has been linked with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. However, as menopause is a secondary process of ageing, and something that ALL women undergo at some point, whether the risk of cardiovascular disease is due to changes in hormonal concentrations, or as a result of the ageing process, remains up for debate.
In addition, all experiences of menopause are different between individuals, just as experiences of the menstrual cycle can vary massively between women. With this in mind, it can’t be stated with concrete evidence, that menopause will definitely reduce your endurance ability, or your speed, or strength, etc.
What we do know, however, is that exercise is key.
While endurance exercise can help reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, and improve your performance in longer endurance efforts, strength training can not only prevent osteoporosis and bone fractures, but also improve your muscular strength, mobility, and speed along the way. Pretty cool, huh?
As a broader science, we have come a long way from the days of putting older adults in beds and preventing them from moving. In modern times, we’re seeing more and more older women – and men – keeping healthy and active for longer than ever before – a major contributing factor in improving life longevity and overall quality of life.
So, ladies, what are your major take home points from this post?
- Menopause is different for everyone. Some have a lighter sentence, while others experience the whole nine yards. Your experience is your own, and you have to do what suits you best to get through it.
- Start strength training – it’s never too late. What you put in now might not help you tomorrow, next week, or even next year. However, it might be the difference between hospitalisation from a fracture and walking away from a pretty non-significant fall.
- Keep active! Not only will being physically active help with your physical wellbeing as you manoeuvre through this treacherous phase in your life, but it can also help to offset some of those emotional disturbances that coincide with the hormonal fluctuations that occur throughout menopause.
To put it simply - Keep moving. Keep moving, for as often, and for as long as you can, for a better quality of life in the long run. You’ll thank us later!
If you're short of options let us know! Our Fit over 50s program is the perfect balance between strength, pilates, high intensity and a damn good social time.
If you want to delve more into the science behind menopause, check out the links below: