At almost every stage of a woman's life, staying fit presents a unique set of challenges, especially as you enter perimenopause (it’s not referred to as “the Change” for nothing). Adjusting your exercise habits will not only help you manage the symptoms of perimenopause, but will best prepare your body for the later years of your life.
What is Perimenopause?
Perimenopause is the body’s natural process of transitioning to menopause (the end of a woman’s reproductive cycle). It most commonly begins when women are in their 40s but can happen anytime between the ages of 39 and 51 and can last anywhere between eight and ten years.
During this time, estrogen levels begin to fluctuate as they ultimately decrease, triggering symptoms like unpredictable periods, hot flashes, irritability and/or depression, sleep trouble and weight gain. There are also increased health risks related to perimenopause, including heart disease, mineral and bone loss and muscle loss.
Estrogen, Weight/Fat Gain and Exercise
One of the most frustrating perimenopausal symptoms is weight gain, especially around the midsection. But before you double-up on cardio or adopt a restrictive eating plan, know that this fat production and storage is your body’s way of protecting you. Estrone, a version of estrogen, is found in the fat stored in your midsection. Declining estrogen places you at a higher risk for heart disease, so your body’s access to estrone is important!
On the other hand, metabolism slows during this period which makes it easier to gain weight and more difficult to lose it. Excessive weight gain during perimenopause is associated with the later development of heart disease and diabetes. So, what to do?
Remember, your body is preparing itself for the next part of your life, so it’s better to support this process rather than to fight it. Shift your focus away from what you look like, which can cause punitive exercise and eating habits with poor health consequences. Adjust your training program to build a strong body and manage stress in order to ease your perimenopause symptoms. Here are some ways to do that:
Lower the intensity. The fluctuating hormone levels that come with perimenopause are a source of stress on the body, and that stress can make perimenopausal symptoms more intense. Additionally, sustained rates of stress are associated with negative health outcomes like heart disease and mental health issues. So now is a good time to swap some high intensity training with moderate-to-low intensity workouts like yoga, pilates and walking. Lower intensity workouts are easier to recover from and will moderate your body’s overall stress response. This means better regulation of perimenopause symptoms.
Incorporate strength training. Strength training helps build and maintain lean muscle mass which is important in alleviating symptoms and risk factors of perimenopause. Weight training helps avoid or lessen the severity of osteoporosis and sarcopenia (muscle wasting), helps maintain hormonal balance and regulates weight gain so you can avoid heart disease and diabetes in the future.
Prioritize sleep. Sleep plays a crucial role in our ability to recover from each day’s activities and prepare for the next. There is a link between lack of sleep and weight gain. (Shocker - it's stress-related!) Sleep also indirectly plays a role in decreasing the risk of sarcopenia. In perimenopause, however, it may be hard to get good sleep with hot flashes keeping you up throughout the night. Do what you can to develop consistent sleep patterns and better recovery, like exercising at lower intensities, having sufficient food and water and reducing alcohol intake. Check this blog post for more suggestions.
Consider nutritional needs. Be mindful of your water intake. Perimenopause affects hydration levels which, in turn, affect your ability to build muscle. And speaking of muscle, make sure you are eating enough protein everyday. Not sure what that amount is? Consider meeting with a registered dietitian or licensed nutritionist to talk through dietary updates to support your body through perimenopause.
Talk to your doctor. Proper exercise and nutrition are just a few tools in the perimenopause toolbox. Your doctor can recommend medications, supplements and other interventions to help you through perimenopause.
Even though perimenopause can be stressful and frustrating, know that it is natural, normal and only temporary. Long-term, your body will be well-prepared for the next part of your life because of the changes it went through and the care you gave it during the process.