Is the Response to Exercise Greater After Menopause?

November 15, 2015 Cathe Friedrich

Is the Response to Exercise Greater After Menopause?

Whether you’ve 5 or 55, physical activity is good for you. Regrettably, most people become less active as they grow older. This is especially true of women after menopause. That’s a shame since that’s when women need exercise the most. Regular exercise can help alleviate some of the annoying symptoms associated with menopause, including mood changes, weight gain, fatigue, and, possibly, help with hot flashes.

You might not like some of the changes your body undergoes after menopause, especially if you don’t exercise. Not only is it easier to gain weight once your hormones change, you have to deal with a loss of muscle size and strength, assuming you don’t strength train. Plus, body fat distribution changes. You may discover your waistline expands as you lose fat in your thighs and hips and that you develop more fat stores around your waist and belly.

One reason fat redistribution takes place is due to hormonal changes as well as a decline in insulin sensitivity that often happens after menopause. Even if you don’t gain weight, you might notice more tummy and waist fat. Plus, much of the fat you gain after menopause is deep, visceral fat, the kind closely linked with health problems like heart disease and type 2-diabetes.

Before throwing up your hands in frustration, wondering what you can do to avert these changes – there’s good news.  These changes can be mitigated by regular strength training, moderate amounts of aerobic exercise, and smart dietary choices. In fact, according to a new study, women may respond BETTER to exercise after menopause than younger women.

Exercise Response after Menopause

Researchers from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst conducted a study recently. They followed the activity of 274 pre-menopausal and 630 post-menopausal women using accelerometers. The accelerometers recorded daily movements and how much time the women spent doing their daily activities. The bad news? Post-menopausal women in the study had a tendency to be less active than younger women. That’s not surprising since research shows women commonly reduce their physical activity after menopause.

What WAS surprising was when both groups of women engaged in relatively light activity, the post-menopausal women benefited more. In other words, light activity did more to positively change the body composition of postmenopausal women than it did their younger counterparts.  In this study, women who participated in even light physical activity were more likely to have a healthy body composition, including a smaller waistline than sedentary pret-menopausal women Also, light physical activity paid off more in post-menopausal gals than in younger women.

What can you take away from this? Post-menopausal women get more benefits from light physical activity than younger women do. That’s good news for post-menopausal women who refuse to do a structured workout, BUT, it’s not ideal from a long-term health perspective. Light physical activity is better than nothing, but it doesn’t address two of the biggest issues all women encounter after menopause: loss of muscle strength, muscle size, and reduction in bone density.

High-Intensity Exercise Has Additional Benefits

To preserve bone density as much as possible, you need high-impact exercise and high-intensity resistance training, using a weight that challenges you. High-intensity resistance training is also the best approach for preserving muscle strength and mass. Don’t forget, you lose about a half a pound of muscle mass each year and you can reduce this loss significantly through heavy resistance training.

The other problem that goes along with the loss of metabolically active muscle tissue is a slowdown in metabolism. Simply put, you burn fewer calories and many women don’t reduce their calorie intake to compensate for the drop in metabolic rate. Not surprisingly, weight gain is common after menopause, but much of it is preventable with sound nutrition in conjunction with regular aerobic exercise and resistance training.

Another reason to do a structured workout – after menopause is when the risk of breast cancer begins to rise. A number of studies show exercise lowers breast cancer risk in women of all ages. In addition, being overweight or obese increases breast cancer risk post-menopausally, and exercise has the added benefit of helping with weight control.

If better health, less weight gain, and a more pleasing body composition aren’t reasons enough to exercise, a study published on Medscape showed women who stay active after menopause have a better quality of life. Women who were less active reported more symptoms of anxiety, depression, memory problems, and hot flashes than women who exercised regularly. There are so many good reasons to exercise at all stages of life, but particularly during and after menopause.

The Importance of Workout Diversity

Aerobic and resistance training top the list of workouts you should be doing, but balance, flexibility, and power training are also important. Flexibility should be included because your joints become stiffer with age and balance to develop greater resistance to falls.

Why engage in power training? You lose fast-twitch muscle fibers to a greater degree than slow-twitch ones as you age – that means strength and power abilities are most impacted by aging. High-intensity resistance training will help you maintain strength, but plyometrics, kettlebells, and other forms of ballistic training will help retain power capabilities. If you think about it, you need strength AND power to thrust yourself up out of a chair. So many people above a certain age can’t get up without help because they let their fast-twitch muscle fibers, the strength and power fibers, atrophy. Don’t let this happen to you!

Workout diversity is also important because you don’t want too much repetitive muscle and joint activity. For example, running most days of the week isn’t necessarily the best form of exercise because you’re using the same muscles over and over and repeatedly pounding the pavement. High-intensity interval training and cross-training alternating with strength training and yoga for flexibility is a more balanced way to work out. Who needs overuse injuries?

The Bottom Line

Exercise after menopause offers so many health benefits that it’s hard to believe more women aren’t doing it. Keep your workouts varied, but make sure you’re doing some form of high-intensity interval training, challenging resistance training, power training, as well as workouts that develop flexibility and balance. Finally, stay focused on nutrition too. What you eat matters!

 

References:

Science Daily. “Physical activity has greater impact on body composition in postmenopausal women” October 19, 2015.

J Midlife Health. 2011 Jul-Dec; 2(2): 51-56. doi:  10.4103/0976-7800.92524.

Medscape Multispecialty. “Exercise Helps Menopause Symptoms and Quality of Life”

Maturitas. 2015;80:69-74.

 

 

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