Just when you think you have life figured out… you have to transition into another phase! These transitions are sometimes psychological, sometimes emotional, and sometimes physical. And most often are all three!
When it comes to physical transitions you may feel like your body is betraying you. As hormone levels change many women deal with hot flashes, inexplicable weight gain (even though you haven’t changed anything about how you eat or move), night sweats, “brain fog”, and maybe even a short temper!
And you may know that menopause is the time when you stop having your period. But many women don’t know much about the other stages of this time of life, nor how to manage the sometimes uncomfortable changes in your body.
Before you even get to menopause, your body goes through perimenopause which means “around menopause.” It marks the end of the time when your body can make a baby. Some women may notice changes in their 30s but most experience these changes starting in their 40s.
You may find that your menstrual cycles become less regular and reliable, and you may experience some hot flashes, sleeping problems and vaginal dryness.
These noticeable physical changes occur because of the internal changing levels of hormones. Hormones are like gatekeepers for the biochemical messages sent through your body’s systems. They open and shut the door on everything from your metabolism, to your moods, to your ability to sleep, to how you feel about sex, to whether or not you are fertile.
While hormones change on their own as you journey through life, there are a few things you can do to influence your hormone levels. Exercise is one of the easiest ways to feel like you have at least some control over what’s happening in your body!
To help you manage the effects of your changing hormones, I recommend staying active every day and exercising regularly.
Estrogen, produced by your ovaries, is the primary “female” sex hormone, and promotes the growth and health of your reproductive organs. It also affects bone health, cholesterol, and more, and it keeps your vagina moist, elastic, and well-supplied with blood. The physical changes that result from fluctuating or lower levels of estrogen can also cause your interest in sex to decrease. If you’d like some help with these problems, I recommend my specially-formulated Julva cream, a topical hormone that can bring relief, and increase desire!
You need estrogen, but too much is a major risk factor for breast cancer. It’s not uncommon for women to have too much because of the modern environment, which includes estrogens in plastics and pesticides. This can lead to estrogen dominance, starting around age 35. Exercise can reduce those high levels of estrogen, which results in a lower risk of breast cancer for premenopausal and postmenopausal women.
Your ovaries also produce the “male” sex hormone, testosterone. It’s not just for men though! Women have it in smaller amounts than men. It plays a role in producing estrogen and it helps maintain bone and muscle mass, while also boosting overall confidence. Lower levels of testosterone contribute to decreased libido.
Cortisol helps control mood, motivation, and the fear response. It dismantles blood fats (triglycerides) and protein to manufacture the glucose you need to fuel your exercise. It is secreted when you are under stress, so while regular low intensity, steady-state exercise helps regulate cortisol levels, high intensity workouts can increase levels immediately following exercise.
Oxytocin is known as the “love” hormone. It helps you bond with others and it helps you feel euphoria. Exercise increases oxytocin levels which is why you feel great when you’re done!
The pancreas releases glucagon in response to low blood sugar. Once in circulation, glucagon stimulates the release of fatty acids from fat stores and increases blood glucose levels, both of which help fuel exercise activity.
If you enjoy high intensity training, that’s a great way to boost production of the human growth hormone (HGH). It reduces fat, improves insulin sensitivity, and builds more muscle. Combine cardio workouts with strength training.
Stabilize your insulin resistance with exercise, which makes muscle cells more receptive to insulin. It also strengthens liver function by limiting fatty deposits in the liver. The result is a jump-start to your metabolism. High intensity training (HIIT) may raise cortisol too much if you don’t rest enough between intervals, which can send your insulin levels out of balance. Do regular, brisk aerobic exercise to keep your liver healthy and your insulin balanced.
Exercise to balance hormones
What’s the best exercise to balance your hormones? All exercise is beneficial, as long as you enjoy it. You know the saying: The “best” exercise is the exercise that you will actually do! Personally, I love to do yoga, walk, weight-train, swim, play tennis, and box.
To be honest, I don’t exercise because I love it; I do it because I know it’s absolutely essential, and because I feel great when I’m done. I’d much prefer to curl up with a good book! So creating more ways to be active has been an important part of my keto-green way of life, including my treadmill desk. I make sure I move regularly, so I feel better and have more energy. You might try the mantra I often use myself: “I will be so happy when I’m done!”
There are some specific types of exercise that are especially beneficial depending on the stage of life you’re in right now - perimenopause, menopause, or postmenopause. I recommend that you commit to getting more active by choosing the best workout to “fix” your own hormones.
The best exercise for perimenopause.
Because your ovaries are starting to make less estrogen, you may begin having hot flashes, night sweats, headaches, trouble sleeping, and greater anxiety or depression than usual. There are myriad research studies that say the following types of exercise can relieve perimenopause symptoms:
Tai Chi. Often described as “meditation in motion,” tai chi is an ancient Chinese tradition that involves a series of movements performed in a slow, focused manner, which are accompanied by deep breathing.
A detailed review published in Worldviews on Evidence-Based Nursing in 2017 reported that tai chi improved many perimenopause symptoms: bodily pain, general health, vitality, mental health, and spinal strength. Many health clubs and gyms offer tai chi classes, which might be worth checking out if you’re struggling with symptoms associated with your fluctuating hormones.
Walking. Here’s a do-anywhere activity that also relieves symptoms, plus builds health. A study of 157 premenopausal women found that walking with long strides three times a week or more had an awesome impact on symptoms. The women slept better, were less irritable, had fewer joint or muscle pains, were more energetic, and had better sex. They also lost weight, especially around their bellies. The study was published in the journal Menopause in 2014. (1)
If you’re just starting a walking program, begin the first week by walking 20 minutes three times a week. For the next few weeks, increase your time to 30 minutes. As you feel more energetic and fit, add an extra session or two to your weekly walking program. Try to work up to five sessions a week, for 30 to 45 minutes each time.
Walking helps reduce excess cortisol too. Even if I’m short on time but feeling a little stressed, I just walk out the door and go for a 10 minute walk, turn around and walk back.
Strength training. This is a type of weight-bearing activity using weights, elastic bands, or your own body weight, in which your muscles are challenged to work harder each time they’re exercised. It develops not only muscle, but also bone tissue, therefore preventing osteoporosis as you get older.
Lift weights, use strength-training machines, use bands, or perform bodyweight exercises at least two days a week. Do one set each of ten to twelve moves that strengthen your major muscle groups—arms, shoulders, chest, back, abdominals, hips, and legs. If you’re beginning, choose a lighter weight you can lift at least 15 to 20 times. Once this gets comfortable, and you are over the soreness, increase the weights to where you can do a maximum of only 10 to 12 reps.
I prefer functional exercises and body weight exercise over machines that isolate single muscle groups. Work with a trainer or gym that incorporates these.
The Best Menopause Workouts
Next comes menopause, which is technically defined as the date twelve months after your last period. With menopause, your body shuts down its reproductive capacity, drastically affecting just about every organ.
Hormonally, what does menopause look like? Your estrogen levels, which fluctuated wildly during perimenopause, drop 75 percent or more from their peak. For some, this major change is easy and trouble-free, with few problems and manageable symptoms. For others, there are unpleasant, often debilitating symptoms like hair loss, acne, aches and pains, crashing fatigue, and weight gain. As estrogen falls off, fat shows up in certain areas—the tummy, thighs, butt, chin, and under eye area. Estrogen is also necessary for glucose utilization in the brain so that may be why you have memory issues and are 3 x as likely as a man to develop dementia as you get older. It’s also why getting healthfully keto-adapted is critical in this stage of your life (read my book The Hormone Fix).
Remember: Menopause is natural and mandatory; suffering is optional!
The following workouts are excellent hormone fixes during menopause:
This activity becomes even more essential during menopause. It is essential for skeletal health, weight control, and your overall well-being. Many women in their 40s and 50s have trouble performing simple physical tasks such as climbing a flight of stairs or carrying grocery bags around the block. Even putting clothes on over your head or clasping your bra strap can become difficult. If women are that weak at that age, what will happen to them at eighty?
Fortunately, various studies show that engaging in just two strength-training workouts a week significantly increases strength in women over fifty quite. The sooner you start, the better you’ll feel and look! Remember to do functional exercises that will help you live your best quality of life as you age. Not to mention put your tight exercise bras on and off over your head and buckle your bra in the back, and make it to the bathroom in the dark without losing your balance and falling.
The word “yoga” actually refers to a union of body, mind, and spirit, an alignment of the physical and nonphysical parts of yourself. It’s not an overstatement: if you practice yoga, you will not only find your health and well-being improve, but every area of your life will benefit.
Yoga is particularly important for stopping or reversing osteoporosis, which can strike during this life stage. A 2016 study, published in Topics in Geriatric Rehabilitation (2), found that 80 percent of older participants, most of whom had osteoporosis or its precursor, osteopenia (low bone density), who practiced twelve yoga poses (often modified) a day showed improved bone density in their spine and femurs. Each pose was held for thirty seconds. The daily regimen, once learned, took only twelve minutes to complete. These findings applied to younger women with healthy skeletons, too.
I can see why. Yoga plays a vital role in preventing fractures by building stability, flexibility, and agility. This means you’re less likely to fall and break something—and if you do start to fall, your agility may help you catch yourself.
Yoga classes are available at practically all gyms, fitness centers, and community centers, so you should be able to easily enroll in a class that meets your needs and level of experience. No matter how time-crunched you are, you can create time for yoga. In fact, yoga will create more time for you.
The Best Postmenopausal Workouts
As menopause ends, you enter postmenopause—which can actually be quite liberating, a new place of centeredness, and a potentially very rewarding phase of life. You begin to reassess your life and goals. You’re more inclined to say, “What shall I do in the next season of my life?” After all, you do have a lot of living left to do! There are very few symptoms leftover from menopause, so you can move in the direction of new hopes and goals—especially if you have your health. Here are some exercise suggestions for this stage in your life.
Aquatic Resistance Training.
This activity involves the use of resistance devices or elastic bands designed for use in a pool, usually performed under the guidance of an instructor. It can be very easy on the joints, and is an excellent form of exercise if you have osteoarthritis or other joint issues, or want to build strength.
When 46 postmenopausal women took part in a 24-week aquatic resistance class, they lost body fat, increased muscle, and lowered their blood pressure. This study appeared in 2009 in the European Journal of Physiology (3). Water exercise is a great way to get fit, especially if you don’t like to swim. Check to see if your gym, health spa, or local YMCA offers aquatic exercise classes.
You’re never too old to kick up your heels – and get fit in the process, plus improve your quality of life. Dancing can significantly improve your balance, mobility, cardiac fitness, flexibility, and energy levels. Many YMCAs, community centers, and gyms offer dance and exercise classes. Consider joining up and being a part of the fun.
On my website, I have many helpful articles on another form of exercise that, while it may not help you fit in your skinny jeans, will improve your pelvic health: Kegel exercises. I even have a video lesson on these, plus articles such as How to Do Kegel Exercises and a Couch Talk on the topic with Isa Herrara, a pelvic floor expert.
For more wonderful tips, especially on exercising after 50, be sure to check out my Couch Talk with Debra Atkinson, a well-known personal wellness coach, on The Perfect “after 50” Fitness Formula.
What’s more, there are other actions you can take in addition to exercising to balance your hormones. Read my blog on 6 Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes You Can Make Today.
Whatever type of exercise appeals to you, please, please get active! Numerous other studies demonstrate that many of the changes—both physical and mental—that we associate with aging and menopause are partly the result of inactivity.
Many of the women I have worked with over the years—women who began exercising before and during menopause—tell me that it changed their lives.
Let exercise change yours!