As women approach the end of their reproductive years, their ovaries slow the production of estrogen and progesterone, the two primary female hormones. Although genetics and lifestyle play a role, during the years around menopause, most women tend to gain weight and change body shape. Being overweight and having less muscle mass with increased fat can increase a woman's risk for heart disease. In particular, fat in the abdominal area is associated with an increased risk for cardiovascualr disease. Bone loss also increases with menopause, making women more susceptible to fractures. Excess weight and decreased estrogen levels are also associated with weakening of pelvic floor muscles and changes in the urinary tract, which can contribute to urinary stress incontinence.
Fortunately, there are ways to combat some of the problems associated with menopause. Getting the right kind of exercise can help you get healthy and reduce some of the risks for chronic disease. Three types of exercises - aerobic, resistance training or weight-bearing, and flexibility--are important. Aerobic exercise is exercise that moves large muscle groups and causes you to breathe more deeply and your heart to work harder to pump blood. Resistance training involves working with weights. In addition, a special type of exercise called Kegel exercises can strengthen muscles of the pelvic floor to decrease problems with leaking urine.
Some of the benefits of exercise include the following:
It can lower your cholesterol level and make your heart healthier. Decreased estrogen levels can speed the development of coronary artery disease and increase your LDL ("bad") cholesterol level, which is responsible for plaque accumulation in the arteries.
It can help you sleep better and can increase the production of endorphins, which are "positive" brain chemicals that work against depressed thoughts and negative feelings. Exercise may also help decrease the frequency and intensity of hot flashes, a common complaint of menopausal women.
It can strengthen and rebuild your bones. During menopause, declining estrogen levels reduce bone mass, causing bones to become thin and break. Weight-bearing exercise, such as walking and strength training, work against the force of gravity and can strengthen your bones.
Flexibility exercises, such as stretching or yoga, can help with muscles use and joint flexibility. They may also help with balance, which may lessen the risk of broken bones due to falls.
Talk to your health care provider before starting an exercise program. Your provider can help you design an exercise program suited for you. If you are older than 65 and have not had a bone density test, talk to your provider about getting one to measure bone-mass levels and check for osteoporosis.
The following exercises and workout regimens can help manage menopause:
Aerobic exercises. These exercises improve heart and lung activity by making your body use more oxygen. Do aerobic exercises for 30 to 60 minutes most days of the week.
Muscle-strengthening exercises. These exercises help prevent osteoporosis, strengthen your back and increase your flexibility. You should do muscle-strengthening exercises at least four times a week. Start out doing each exercise a few times, then gradually increase the number of repetitions.
Stretching exercises, including overhead stretching done standing against a wall, bent-knee stretches done while lying on the floor, and squats done while holding onto the back of a chair, are also recommended.