Menopause relief and exercise: How it combats four common symptoms

Expert advice on how to alleviate menopause symptoms – increased body fat, loss of muscle, hot flashes and sleep problems – with exercise.

blonde woman after exercising, workout outside

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When I remember my mom going through menopause, I’m amazed my parents are still married. Now before you gather your torches and pitchforks, let me finish my story.

I remember it being minus 30C outside and our house windows were constantly being opened when my mom experienced a hot flash. My dad would chase her around the house closing windows just as she was opening them. It was like watching a sitcom.

One day, my dad got sneaky. He looked out the window and exclaimed, “What the hell? What’s going on out there?” then rushed to open the front door. My mom, ever curious, ran outside to see what the kerfuffle was about. As you can guess, he quickly locked the front door behind her. She pounded on the door demanding to be let in but he refused until her hot flash was over. She forgave him. Eventually.

My point – other that trying to be written out of my parents’ will – is that menopause can add challenges to your life. But it turns out that exercise is a great way to battle the negative effects caused by menopause. Here are four common symptoms that exercise can help with:

1. Increased body fat

“It is a well-known fact that menopause comes with unwanted weight gain,” says Dr. Sue Pedersen, an obesity researcher and a specialist in endocrinology and metabolism. (Dr. Pedersen has an excellent blog that I subscribe to.)  What’s more, the fat you gain with menopause is the bad kind. I mean, the extra bad kind: visceral instead of subcutaneous. “You start to accumulate fat the way a man does in the abdomen,” Pedersen says, which “raises the risks of diabetes and heart disease”. Furthermore, a deficiency of estrogen can promote increased food intake. “There is a lot of emotional fluctuation and there may be a link to eating,” she says. “The whole transition is stressful.”

Exercise can help burn calories, but more importantly, it’s a proven gateway behaviour to controlling food intake. Exercise is also a proven stress reliever. So don’t just accept that menopause means added body fat – use exercise as a powerful mood booster that will help deter you from emotional eating caused by hormonal fluctuations. Exercising will lead to wiser food choices and therefore no weight gain.

2. Loss of muscle

“It’s the lower testosterone that causes muscle loss,” Dr. Pedersen told me. That makes sense. A lot of women don’t consider testosterone as being an important female hormone, but it’s what gives you the ability to open your own pickle jars.

Dr. Pedersen is a big fan of exercise such as weightlifting to maintain muscle mass. So am I. By engaging in regular weightlifting or other resistance training such as Pilates, certain forms of yoga or bodyweight training you can combat loss of muscle and even increase it. As a result, you get a stronger, more functional and better looking body.

3. Hot flashes

There is new research that looks at exercise and women experiencing hot flashes. Apparently, it all boils down to attitude.

Some women get more hot flashes the day after exercise, which I would imagine would not be the least bit helpful in terms of adhering to a fitness regimen. The interesting thing about the research, however, is the tremendous importance of attitude and a sense of control. Women who felt they had control over their hot flashes experienced fewer the day after exercise, and those who felt at the mercy of their hot flashes experienced more after exercise.

So, exercise can help decrease the effect of hot flashes, but only if you have the attitude that you have some control over them and that it’s actually going to help, otherwise it can have the opposite effect. The researchers said cognitive behavioral therapy could be a benefit in terms of changing these attitudes.

4. Disrupted sleep

Difficulty falling and/or staying asleep can be common both during and after menopause. As mentioned, exercise is a mood booster and stress reliever, which helps for a better night’s sleep. It can also help set your body’s circadian rhythm and temperature to optimize sleep. Exercise raises body temperature and then a few hours later lowers it, which makes falling asleep easier.

In order to properly regulate the sleep-wake cycle and make sure body temperature is conducive to sleep, it is important to make sure you exercise earlier in the day. An added bonus here is that people who exercise first thing in the morning have the highest adherence rates.

Beyond exercise, Dr. Pedersen extols the virtues of patience. “Know that the symptoms get better with time.” Your hormones will eventually stabilize after a couple of years, which will decrease emotional turmoil and sleep disturbances.

James S. Fell, MBA, is a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Calgary. He writes the column “In-Your-Face Fitness” for the Los Angeles Times and consults with clients on strategic planning for fitness and health. Get your free Metabolism Report here.