What is menopause?
Menopause is a normal part of a female’s life. It marks the end of monthly menstrual cycles and reproductive life. This is due to hormonal changes that occur within the ovaries. Most women hit menopause between 44-55 years old with the average age being around 51. Menopause before the age of 40 is defined as ‘premature menopause’, menopause before the age of 45 is called ‘early menopause’.
Menopause is induced by the slowing and eventual cessation of female hormones, specifically oestrogen and progesterone produced from within the ovaries. Over time, these hormones are no longer produced which means that the ovaries no longer release eggs and subsequently menstruation stops.
Menopause occurs over three different phases.
The first is called ‘peri-menopause’.The main sign to look out for is that your menstrual cycle will become very irregular, but won’t stop completely. You may even get symptoms such as hot flushes or night sweats. Pregnancy is still possible during this phase.
The second phase is ‘menopause’. This marks your very final menstrual cycle and the end of your fertile life. An increase in symptoms (listed below) will start to arise. You won’t know that you have left peri-menopause until 1 year after your last menstruation.
The third and final stage is known as ‘post-menopause’. It has now been 1 year since the last menstrual cycle and you should no longer experience bleeding. If you do, you should contact your doctor urgently.
Some common signs of menopause include:
Trouble sleeping (due to night sweats)
A reduction in self-esteem and mood.
It is important to note that every woman is an individual and will respond in varying degrees and potentially with differing symptoms. Put simply, try not to compare yourself to others!
What are the main health concerns surrounding menopause?
Risk factors for menopause are due to the cessation of female hormones, progesterone and oestrogen.
Women may be at an increased risk of developing osteoporosis and sustaining fractures as a result of reduced bone mineral density. Oestrogen plays an incredibly important role in maintaining a healthy bone mineral density. As oestrogen levels reduce, it is important that bone health becomes a high priority in maintaining good overall health and function.
A reduction of oestrogen also plays a role in maintaining heart health and healthy cholesterol levels. Research suggests that women who have reached menopause are at an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease due to the way oestrogen interacts with the heart, blood vessels and cholesterol types.
So how does exercise come into play?
As described above, two main risk factors for menopause are: osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease. Regular exercise and physical activity directly targets these risk factors in a positive way.
Exercise plays an integral role in supporting good bone strength and continual growth. Specifically, weight bearing exercises are fundamental for building strong, healthy bones, tendons, ligaments and muscles. Regular loading of the musculoskeletal system promotes strong and healthy bones. Sedentary bodies are at a higher risk of developing osteoporosis, fractures which in turn reduces quality of life.
Exercise also helps to maintain a healthy heart and cardiovascular system. A nice mix of resistance exercise and cardiovascular training will significantly help the heart to remain strong and reliable. As exercise increases in intensity the heart, lungs and blood vessels need to work harder. This increase in work helps the cardiovascular to become stronger and more efficient, improving overall heart health and longevity.
Exercise can also help to prevent further issues from arising once women reach menopause.
Prevent weight gain: Once menopause has been reached, women typically lose muscle mass and gain abdominal fat. This is a risk factor for cardiovascular and metabolic disease. Regular exercise can help prevent weight gain and maintain a healthy body composition.
Reduce the risk of developing cancer: Exercise during and after menopause can help maintain a healthy body weight and lower inflammatory problems. Regular exercise places you at a lower risk of developing many types of cancer.
Improve mental health and mood: As listed above, menopause can cause irritability, tiredness and a lowered self-esteem and mood. Regular exercise helps to boost the production of endorphins, leaving you feeling happier and in a better mood. Exercise also promotes the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for cognitive function and mood regulation.
So exactly how much exercise do you need?
The World Health Organisation recommends at least 150 minutes of moderately vigorous activity per week. The best thing you can do is aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise per day. To reap the full benefits of exercise, aim to complete a mix of weight bearing exercise and cardiovascular exercise. Completing a mix of different exercise will help target all systems within the body and improve overall fitness and functionality.
If you are unsure how to start, consider chatting to your GP or reach out to an exercise professional in your area. The important thing is that you find something you enjoy so it becomes a lifestyle change rather than a short term fix. For long-term health, exercise should be completed regularly for as long as physically possible.