Hormones fluctuate naturally with age.
As the menopause approaches and the levels of oestrogen and progesterone start to decline, menstrual cycles become less regular before inevitably coming to a stop. Oestrogen is often thought of as purely a female reproductive hormone, but there are oestrogen receptors throughout our bodies and the effects of declining oestrogen can have a significant effect on many of our body systems.
Many women may suffer tremendously with a variety of symptoms at this time, ranging from hot flushes, night sweats, broken concentration, memory issues, weight gain, lowered self-esteem, a drop in libido, heightened emotions and noticeable mood swings. This can lead to low mood, relationship strain, anxiety and overwhelm.
The great news is that regular exercise can play a crucial role in regulating hormone levels and in minimising the symptoms experienced, and is a major part of a wider holistic functional medicine approach to helping women to take back control of their hormones and their lives at this important life transition.
We can also use exercise as an important tool alongside treatment for conditions associated with hormone imbalance, such as endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome, or in preparation for women nervously approaching menopause.
There are strong links between oestrogen and exercise; this sex hormone also supports bone health, collagen production in connective tissues and in the skin, it promotes lean muscle mass and enhances metabolism.
Top five reasons ways in which regular exercise can help you thrive as you approach menopause:
- Bone density can rapidly decline as oestrogen levels drop; this increases susceptibility to Osteoporosis (‘brittle bones’) and bone fractures. Regular weight-bearing exercise, in particular regular resistance training (exercise with weights, resistance bands, cables, a pilates reformer or body-weight movements), has been shown in studies to counteract these changes and help preserve bone density.
- Reduced lean muscle mass and a tendency to weight gain are also seen as oestrogen levels decline; this is in part linked to a general slowing of our metabolism (the rate at which we burn energy) and also due to sarcopaenia (muscle wastage). Weight gain then clearly has secondary effects not just on emotional well-being with reduced self-esteem and low mood, but also significant effects of increased risks for developing diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke, alongside being a major risk factor for most forms of cancer. Through regular exercise, ideally a combination of regular cardiovascular exercise alongside resistance training, we can help to prevent weight gain, preserve lean muscle mass, and maintain a healthy metabolic rate.
- Insomnia can be a frequent struggle facing many women at menopause. Poor sleep can be linked a combination of heat regulation issues causing night sweats, alongside the inability to settle an anxious mind, overcome with worries, low mood and stress from the daily struggles created by the array of other menopausal symptoms. The effect of chronic sleep deprivation can be a further worsening of poor concentration, brain fog, low mood and fatigue. Regular cardiovascular exercise has been shown to help provide a sense of clarity and calm, help aid sleep quality and improve mood. Incorporating the elements of flexibility and balance work into your weekly routines, for example in the form of yoga, pilates or tai chi, will also help to soothe a racing mind and provide an opportunity to relax and find your ‘flow’. Exercising outdoors in the natural morning daylight has been shown to have a significant effect on boosting melatonin release and resetting our internal circadian body-clock rhythms; even just a short walk, cycle ride or gardening outdoors in the mornings can help with sleep issues and elevate your mood.
- Poor memory and cognitive decline can be a significant concern for many of us as we age. Oestrogen receptors are widely distributed in the brain and oestrogen exerts a powerful protective action on the brain and on nerve tissues, so the major reduction in oestrogen levels at menopause may be involved in the nerve degeneration and accelerated brain atrophy contributing to dementia changes that can develop as we age. Being active is one of the most important strategies you can employ to prevent cognitive decline (Alzheimer’s and memory issues), especially regular aerobic exercise (that raises your heart rate and breathing rate and causes you to break a gentle sweat). This could be through walking, cycling, jogging, rowing, dancing, or using gym equipment such as a stationary bike, cross-trainer or treadmill. This helps increase brain blood flow, helps boost the production of BDNF, an important protein that stimulates the production of new brain cells and supports existing nerve connections, and also helps with the glymphatic system (the waste-disposal system for the brain.
- Poor self-esteem, low mood, anxiety or depression can sadly be a consequence of the hormone changes seen at menopause for some women. Physical activity is proven to boost dopamine levels in the brain that reduce stress and depression and create a natural ‘feel-good’ elevated mood. Aerobic exercise also significantly increases another ‘happy hormone’ Serotonin, which can positively impact mood, help you feel more focused, emotionally stable, happier and calmer, and may also enhance sleep. Endorphins are also hormones released during exercise that help relieve pain, reduce stress and improve your sense of joy. Thus, exercise is a key tool in all approaches to naturally boost mood and elevate feelings of mental and emotional well-being.
There is clearly overwhelming evidence for the importance of exercise and physical activity in maintaining good health and maximising your quality of life in your later years. Try to rethink your workouts and rather than seeing them as a chore, instead reframe them as the highlight of your day! Time spent being active is in fact an investment in hormone-balancing, health-preserving, mood-lifting, cancer- preventing and anti-aging, essential quality time.
This is your time to dedicate to strengthening your body, lifting your spirits and sharpening your mind; so find some physical activities you enjoy and get active!!