Hormones play an influential role in a woman’s health. In the peri-menopause and menopause years, women may experience an array of negative health effects triggered by hormonal fluctuations.
Exercise has a role in correcting hormonal imbalances, which ultimately leads to more positive health outcomes.
Symptoms of hormonal imbalances affecting women aged 40+ are
- decreased flexibility
- stiff joints and lower back, sore shoulder etc.
- weight gain around the abdomen
- general weight gain around the thighs and arms.
These physiological changes are known as the peri-menopause (the years leading up to menopause).
The peri-menopause years signal a fluctuation of hormones that can also give common side-effects such as hot flashes, night sweats, abdominal weight gain, feeling lower in mood and energy, disrupted sleep patterns – a more serious symptom being depression.
However it is important to note that the peri-menopause does not create muscle and joint stiffness, arthritic problems or even weight gain. It can exacerbate these conditions.
There are ways to help cope with peri-menopause and years beyond..
(a) Physical Activity and
(b) A Healthy Eating Plan
In this post, I will only to examine how regular exercise may assist with more positive health outcomes when a woman is experiencing the side-effects of fluctuating hormones in the peri-menopause.
Why hormones are important
Hormones can be described as the postal service of your body. Much like the postman delivering packages to your front door, so too hormones deliver messages to crucial areas of the body important for a healthy body.
But just as the postal service can mis-direct a package or two to the wrong address, hormones too when not balanced, can mis-fire their messages, impacting on your fitness.
Here’s how it works
Hormones are powerful chemical messengers traveling through the bloodstream to tissues and organs to maintain good health.
Hormones are responsible for growth and development of healthy cells, for a healthy metabolism, reproduction, balanced mental outlook and for sexual function.
Your glands make the hormones and the main endocrine glands are the pituitary, pineal, thymus, thyroid, adrenal glands and pancreas.
The messages the hormones send are tiny, but they can create HUGE changes in your body. That is why any hormonal imbalance can play a role your weight gain or any other health issues.
Examples of hormonal fluctuations/imbalance
- Pregnancy – Many women experience morning sickness. This condition subsides at the same time that levels of the hormone, HCG decrease. This usually occurs in the second trimester, when the placenta takes over the production of oestrogen and progesterone.
- Child-Birth – Post natal depression. Following child-birth, there is a sharp drop in the hormones oestrogen and progesterone. There is also a sharp drop in other hormones produced by the thyroid gland. These hormonal changes may contribute to post-partum depression in some women.
- Menstrual Cycle – oestrogen and progesterone levels drop to their lowest during menstruation. It’s one reason why many women experience mood swings, weight gain, desire for high-carb foods at this time of the month.
- Peri-menopause – Fluctuating levels of oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone lead to hormonal imbalance and symptoms of weight gain, irregular periods, heavy bleeding, hot flashes, night sweats, insomnia, mood swings, vaginal dryness, fatigue, loss of libido and ‘foggy’ head.
A Closer Look At Peri-Menopause
In the handful of years leading up to menopause, a woman’s hormones levels are fluctuating and declining irregularly, resulting in a sense of total physical and emotional imbalance for many women.
During the peri-menopause, egg production naturally diminishes leading to failed ovulation (anovulatory cycle). As a result progesterone levels are falling resulting in many women experiencing symptoms of hormonal imbalance.
We need progesterone not only to prepare the uterus for pregnancy, but also to balance the effects of oestrogen. Oestrogen dominance (more of this subject in a minute!) can lead to increased risk of breast cancer and cancer of the uterus.
Progesterone also acts as a natural anti-depressant, relieves cravings for high carb foods, controls thyroid function, and encourages the use of fat for energy. This is why progesterone is commonly referred to as a fat-burning hormone.
As for oestrogen…
During peri-menopause, oestrogen levels start declining because the ovaries are slowing down production of this hormone. However, smaller levels of oestrogen continue to be produced in other organs and in fat cells. This explains why very overweight women have fewer menopausal symptoms than leaner women. Their oestrogen levels remain higher than those of leaner women.
Specific Hormonal Conditions
Certain hormones can negatively impact on a woman’s metabolism. Hypothyroidism is a condition where thyroid hormone levels are too low. It can lead to a significant drop in a woman’s resting metabolic rate.
A low metabolic rate can influence weight gain. A low level of thyroid in the bloodstream will block the fat-burning hormones, resulting in weight gain.
In a woman’s 30’s and early 40’s, increasing levels of oestrogen may occur while progesterone and testosterone levels fluctuate – a condition referred to as oestrogen dominance.
In this phase of her life, a woman’s ovaries are producing significantly less progesterone, while fat cells are producing more oestrogen, which may create oestrogen dominance.
At the same time, fat-burning hormones decline (HGH and DHEA), creating the perfect environment for weight gain on the abdomen, hips and thighs.
Low Testosterone Levels
Just as with men, women also need testosterone, albeit at smaller levels. Testosterone is required for cell growth, sexual function and notably for developing lean muscle mass, – an important factor in weight control.
During her 40’s, a woman’s testosterone levels will fall along with progesterone in a way that may impact her ability to control her weight.
Contrary to popular opinion, adrenal fatigue is not an officially recognized medical diagnosis. It is a term used to describe a set of chronic symptoms such as fatigue, unexplained weight loss, low blood pressure, and general aches and pains.
The adrenal glands are located on top of the kidneys. The adrenals work alongside the hypothalymus and pituitary glands in the brain to produce corticosteroid hormones.
Corticosteroids are important for controlling weight gain, reducing inflammation, boosting the immune system, and producing other hormones (estrogen, testosterone and progesterone).
The adrenals help us to cope with stress (i.e. stressful situations and also stress caused by poor food choices or over-eating
Aside from oestrogen dominance, women also can experience oestrogen deficiency – a condition typically occurring during menopause.
Low oestrogen levels are usually associated with menopause when ovarian hormone output has ceased. Low levels of oestrogen also occur following surgical procedures such as hysterectomy, when over-training, with eating disorders, or when carrying very low body fat (<15%).
As you can see, hormones influence a woman’s health and in every example listed above, exercise and healthy food choices play a very significant role in achieving realistic fitness goals.
How To Exercise
Exercise can be structured (exercise classes, or following a gym program) or it can simply mean staying physically active for most of the day.
New research has now measured how staying active utilizing non-structured exercise can lead to a healthier, longer life.
Researchers in Sweden studied the daily activity levels of nearly 4000 people aged 60+. They found those who led an active lifestyle were less likely to suffer a heart-related condition and less likely to die prematurely than those who were least active.
While this study was conducted on the elderly, the results remain relevant also for younger populations. In essence, the message here is –
“Get up, get moving and be healthy!”
Staying physically active is really not that difficult – walking with friends, gardening, cycling to work instead of taking the car, joining a club such as a walking group, golf or tennis, abseiling, rock climbing, horse-riding, the list is endless.
Want more examples…? Sweep the front lawn of leaves instead of using a leaf blower, or sweep the kitchen floor with a broom instead of vacuuming.
Simple activities such as these can make a difference to your overall daily activity levels, adding up to a significantly healthier lifestyle.
Try Walking Fast
The simplest and cheapest method of exercise is simply walking. But not just ambling along while chatting with a friend…
A fast walking gait has proven to increase vitality, burn calories and ultimately, improve life expectancy.
Research in the U.S. suggests that a fast walking gait will give you better health than those who naturally walk slow.
More than 34,000 people aged 60+ were studied for 21 years. Researchers found that as people walked faster their health indicators dramatically improved. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3080184/
For example, the study team found that participants who walked 1meter/second (approximately 3.6kmp or 2.25mph or faster), lived longer than those who walked slower.
Even though this research focused on the elderly, for those of us younger, we still have time to pick up the pace. Speed walking combined with some strength training in the gym will help not only burn body fat but also add years to your life.
Do More Strengthening Exercises
I strongly advocate strength training for women of all ages.
As for those myths about strength training – ‘women bulking up’, ‘women looking ugly and big’ etc….ignore them. They are simply false and misleading and here’s why…
* Women aged 40+ are naturally losing muscle mass at a rate approximately 5% every decade. That accounts for a natural weight GAIN of about 500 grams every year.
Add on the weight gain you get through poor lifestyle factors, and you have a significantly greater weight gain each year.
Increasing your lean muscle mass will protect you from an increase in body fat, and the only way to boost muscle mass is through regular strength training.
* A regular strength training routine will protect your joints from injury, improve posture by strengthening bones and muscles, help stretch and strengthen soft tissues (ligaments, tendons and cartilage) and improve flexibility to protect your back from injury.
If you are new to exercise and have never performed regular strength training before, it is recommended you hire a personal trainer to show you the correct and efficient way to exercise to maximize results.
It is money worth spending.
Consider it a sound investment in your health, after all, you only have one life, so it pays to invest in yourself.
Don’t Forget Aerobic Fitness
Too much cardio can risk burning more muscle than fat. This is a common pitfall with many women.
However, we all need aerobic fitness to protect against heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure etc.
Aerobic fitness increases energy levels, improves sleep patterns, provides mental acuity, and is excellent for special conditions such as arthritis and asthma.
Combining aerobic exercise with a strength training program produces significant weight loss results that are sustainable long-term.
The Basic Ingredients of Exercise for Hormonal Optimization
To help re-balance your hormones for optimum health outcomes and not just simply for weight loss, it is important to follow these guidelines.
Keep Exercise Short
If you have a busy daily schedule (and let’s face it, who doesn’t!) then it makes good sense to keep your exercise to 30 minutes max.
Most people do not like to spend too much time on exercising and yet we want fast results in half the time. For many people, a thirty minute exercise routine 4-5 times weekly is easier to maintain long-term, than a 60 minute exercise routine 3-4 times a week.
Variety Is Better
To maximize hormonal function and weight loss, it’s imperative you mix up each exercise session. That does not mean to say each workout must be totally different from the last one performed.
It simply means adding a small change to the routine. In this way the body is always being challenged and when the body is in this state of activity, there is a greater uptake of your fat-burning hormones to help control your weight.
Give It Your Best Shot
When you exercise for 30 minutes each session, you need to maintain a high intensity for maximum results. For example, a 30 minute casual walk around the block is not adequate to fire up your metabolism, a key factor in fighting weight gain. However, a 30 minute run or fast walk up hilly terrain will produce more positive outcomes.
Remember, you don’t want to waste your time with mediocre exercise intensity that do not give you the results you are working hard to produce.
Make every session worthwhile i.e. finish with your heart pounding and a sweaty face!
Use Multiple Muscles
For every strength training workout, make sure to work multiple muscle groups at the same time. This is referred to as compound exercises.
This approach to strength exercise will increase growth hormone (GH) an important chemical that is required for cell growth throughout the entire body (muscle, bone).
Intervals for Your Cardio
Interval training refers to the short bouts of intense activity separated by periods of brief recovery or lighter activity.
This method of training provides for optimal fat-burning and cardiovascular fitness.
Interval training can be challenging on the body. If you are new to exercise, perform intervals only once a week until your body builds up strength and endurance to be able to comfortably perform more intervals throughout the week.
Stretch, Stretch, Stretch
As we age past 40, the soft tissues begin to lose their elasticity, leaving weak joints vulnerable to injury.
A more sedentary lifestyle, muscle imbalance produced by poor posture and a lack of regular exercise, can leave joints and muscle stiffer, weaker and with little endurance to withstand meaningful periods of physical activity.
Stretching becomes more important with age. It must be performed on a daily basis as little as 10 minutes at a time.
Stretching will loosen tight muscles, improve joint range of movement, reduce adrenalin and blood cortisol levels that influence weight gain) and help calm stress levels and contribute to mental clarity.
Exercise alone is not the sole ingredient for successful weight control. But exercise can help alleviate menopausal symptoms.
By including the guidelines above, your exercise routine will help give you better weight control and improved well-being.
In a short time (4-8 weeks), regular exercise combined with a healthy diet, can lead to improved sleep patterns, less fatigue, mental clarity, more energy, as well as a leaner body shape.
A personal trainer provides you with appropriate exercise guidelines/programming/motivation and expertise required to get you on the right track to successful well-being.
Hiring a personal trainer may seem expensive but it is an investment that many clients have made with meaningful results.
Rachel Law is a personal fitness trainer based in New Malden, Surrey. Qualifications: ActivIQ Level 3 Personal Training; Burrell Education Pregnancy Exercise Prescription; Burrell Education Advanced Pregnancy Wellness Practitioner; Burrell Education Advanced Post Natal Exercise Prescription; Burrell Education 3rd Age Women Optimal Health and Nutrition; Burrell Education Peri Natal Athlete; Burrell Education Pelvic Flow and Freedom; Olympic Weight Lifting; Premier Global Kettlebells; FIE Level Assessment and Mentoring