Menopausal Weight Gain: Fighting Back with Exercise

In previous posts, we discussed why menopausal weight gain is such a game-changer, and we explored how to limit the damage through dietary changes. Now, we’ll talk about the second critical key for maintaining—or regaining—a healthy weight after menopause.

You know what I’m gonna say.

Exercise. Not only does a regular exercise regimen help you burn more calories, which is what weight loss is all about, but it can also give you a higher quality of life and actually stave off illness.

Longitudinal studies have found that people who are more fit at midlife have lower levels of chronic illnesses, such as heart failure, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, colon and lung cancers, as they age. Although other factors, such as heredity, play a role, in general, higher fitness levels were strongly linked with lower rates of major chronic illnesses. “Compression of morbidity” is when debilitating illness doesn’t happen until close to the end of life—and people with healthy, active lifestyles tend to have compression of morbidity.  

How’s that for paybacks?

I can tell you from personal experience that a regular, moderately challenging exercise regimen relieves stress, helps you sleep better, reduces the “aches and pains” associated with aging, and helps you to keep up with normal activities of daily life. It regulates your bowels and your moods. And simply feeling stronger and more capable physically helps you to feel more capable and in control of your life generally.

However, I will also say that maintaining a serious (and by serious, I mean regular and moderately challenging) exercise regimen is not easy. It takes time and self-discipline. It makes you sweat. It makes you breathless and it might make you sore.

Not only that, you have to approach exercise differently in your golden years than you did before. You won’t be able to just take off running without a serious warm up; you’ll have to watch your form more carefully; you’ll want to opt for low-impact exercise. Your postmenopausal exercise regimen should contain four elements:

  • Cardio. This is the aerobic stuff that gets your heart rate up, like walking fast enough that you can talk, but not sing (about 3.5 mph, which I find I can do with practice and conditioning), biking, swimming, dancing. Unless you know your joints can take it, stick with low-impact aerobics. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends two-and-a-half hours of moderately strenuous aerobic exercise per week.

Lately, high intensity interval training (HIIT) is recommended to increase the effectiveness of an aerobic workout. In this regimen you alternate bursts of higher activity, such as jogging, with a less active period, such as walking. This gives you an “afterburner” effect in which your muscles continue to burn oxygen after the period of high activity. This AARP article has a good explanation of the benefits of HIIT.

  • Strength (resistance) training. This helps you maintain muscle strength. (Remember that you lose at least 20 percent of muscle mass as you age.) You can use weights or resistance bands, body weight or exercise machines. The CDC recommends weight training 2 days per week.
  • Flexibility. Stretching and toning exercises maintain your range-of-motion and keep your tendons healthy and your joints juicy. Don’t bounce or jerk while stretching. Hold positions for at least 30 seconds and don’t stretch to the point of pain. It’s a good practice to stretch after your regular workout. Here’s a simple stretching routine from the Mayo Clinic. Yoga is fabulous for maintaining flexibility and relieving stress. (Listen to our podcast on this topic here.) It also counts as strength training, so consider joining a class once or twice a week.
  • Balance. Balance is another capacity that diminishes with age, but it’s important to maintain because injury from falls is common and serious. Tai chi is a great discipline to improve balance, but so are simple exercises, such as standing on one foot, unassisted, for 10 seconds or standing first on tiptoe and then heels—simple exercises you can do every day.

Arguably, the hardest part about exercise is getting started. If you have any health conditions that might limit your activity, such as high blood pressure or arthritis, you need to talk with your doctor about what exercises you should and shouldn’t do.

Ideally, you should find a gym with classes or a trainer to get you started—to make sure you’re using correct form, and to show you how to use the machines. Yoga or Tai chi classes with experienced teachers are fantastic and motivational for establishing an exercise regimen.

Get on your mat every day.If this isn’t practical or possible for you, you might turn to the internet for videos and programs. You want substance, knowledgeable leaders, and safety, not razzle-dazzle. Try Fitness Blender (free workout videos and programs for all levels of fitness), Daily Burn, ($15/month; variety of workouts, including yoga, tailored to age and fitness level) or Yoga Today ($15/month with a discount for yearly membership; many workouts tailored to fitness level).

The next hardest part of an exercise regimen is continuing. You will miss days; you will have days in which you don’t work as hard as you should. After a few missed sessions, starting again is hard. That’s just how it goes. You start over; you don’t quit.

Part of the battle is finding a program that works for you—one that is varied, challenging (you are progressively lifting heavier, going longer and faster), but that isn’t killing you. Soreness is good; pain is bad. Move carefully without overextending or snapping joints. Always warm up and cool down.

This is your new normal: a clean diet, a daily exercise regimen that alternates weight training and aerobic exercise and incorporates stretching and balance segments.

I promise you that every ounce of effort invested in a healthy diet and regular exercise will return to you many-fold in a much higher quality of life now and in lower risk of chronic illness down the road. Let me know how it goes and send me any questions you may have. This stuff is too important to overlook.  

Yoga for Cancer Survivors

“I cannot give you another regimen that has as many good health benefits as exercise. Hands down. Exercise improves life energy and sexual energy; your body image will improve. I can’t give you a better, free intervention.” So said psychologist Helen Coons to breast cancer survivors.

Any gentle exercise regimen during recovery is good. It helps ease many of the distressing symptoms of cancer treatment: insomnia, fatigue, weight gain, depression, poor body image, sexual dysfunction.

Yet, one of the best forms of exercise, according to several recent studies, is yoga.

Yoga combines gentle stretching and holding of various positions, which helps with balance, flexibility, and muscle tone. But it also involves a meditative component. The breath work in yoga “stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and causes the body to relax and the blood pressure to drop,” says Maureen Ryan, sex therapist and nurse practitioner.

Yoga also encourages a sense of mindfulness—being aware of the moment and present to it. When the recent past is full of pain and the future is full of fear, “mindfulness brings people back to the present moment,” says Ms. Ryan. In one study of women with gynecological cancers who were experiencing difficulty with sex, the most helpful component of the experimental program was the practice of mindfulness.

Yoga is so effective because it exercises the body and calms the mind.

A small but significant study found that several weeks of Restorative Yoga, which involves gentle poses, usually with support from pillows and other props, reduced depression by 50 percent in women with cancer. (All had breast cancer; about one-third were still in treatment.)

Another larger study focused on the effect of two types of yoga—Hatha Yoga and Restorative Yoga—on cancer survivors who were having difficulty sleeping, a common problem for survivors and one that isn’t easily alleviated with medication.

Half the group attended 75-minute yoga classes twice a week and also practiced yoga at home. At the end of a month, this group was sleeping better with less medication than the control group. The group also reported less fatigue during the day.

In yet another study, breast cancer survivors reported better body image and less self-consciousness. After doing yoga for two months both at home and in group sessions, these women also had less pain, better muscle tone, more flexibility, and greater weight loss than a control group that had just exercised minimally for 30 minutes a week.

In fact, yoga is seen to be so effective in recovery that several top cancer centers, such as Memorial Sloan-Kettering and Stanford Cancer Center, provide their own yoga classes to patients.

Any form of exercise is helpful, but evidence suggests that the kind of mind-body regimen that yoga offers is particularly effective. Yoga classes are also easy to find—most communities offer them, and they are affordable.

Besides, anything that reduces depression, increases energy, improves body image, and reduces pain has to be good for sex, too.