News

Women can exercise menopause symptoms away

There’s no better treatment

By GHISLAINE ROBERT

For the Mirror

Most women can name good reasons to exercise: Feeling better, lowering stress, and for some, the coveted prize of weight loss.

But studies now show that exercise protects women’s health in very specific ways, including relieving the symptoms of menopause and preventing serious diseases.

When it comes to treating the classic symptoms of menopause, no medication or supplement has a greater overall effect than regular exercise. Following published reports of the risks of taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT) during menopause, many women sought alternative treatments. For nearly all the common symptoms, including hot flashes, night sweats, fatigue, irritability and depression, exercise is shown to have a significant impact without the danger of side effects.

Weight gain, another frequent occurrence in menopause, can result from the combination of lack of estrogen and less physical activity. Sometimes, post-menopausal women build up fat in the abdomen, which poses special risks. Intra-abdominal fat is linked in studies to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. Regular exercise can effectively reduce this intra-abdominal fat, lowering a woman’s risk.

In addition to treating menopausal conditions, exercise poses a double threat to the number one killer of women: cardiovascular disease (CVD). First, because a sedentary lifestyle is a key risk factor for CVD, women who exercise increase their chances for preventing the disease. Second, exercise can reduce a woman’s chance of developing the precursors for CVD, including high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol and obesity.

Recent studies have also linked exercise to the prevention of certain cancers. A 2003 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that women who walked approximately one to three hours per week reduced their risk of breast cancer by 18 percent. Other research shows exercise may reduce the risk of cancers of the colon, uterus and gallbladder, among others.

Do you have to become a world-class athlete to reap these long-term health benefits from exercise? Not even close! Doing 30 minutes of moderately intense aerobic exercise, at what most people would consider a mildly challenging pace, should be your goal for should be your goal for most days of the week. You can also get the same benefit from splitting up the time, exercising in three daily 10-minute increments, for example.

The best activities to choose are those that use large muscle groups, such as walking, dancing, cycling or jogging. Swimming and water exercise are also good, but be sure to include weight-bearing or resistance activities (like lifting weights) to help maintain bone density and prevent osteoporosis.

To make your exercise program even more effective for protecting your health, add two to three sessions of strengthening and stretching to the routine. You may want to seek out a qualified personal trainer who can help you target key muscle groups with the appropriate strengthening techniques. A trainer can also demonstrate proper stretching moves, which are typically done in repetitions like strengthening.

Since relieving stress is a vital part of preventive health care, calming forms of exercise such as yoga are also beneficial. Yoga can be particularly helpful during menopause, as it can help to restore flexibility, balance and strength while boosting mood and a sense of well-being.

Even insomnia, another condition often associated with menopause, shows improvement with regular exercise. A recent study found the best results were obtained with exercise of moderate intensity for more than 30 minutes at a time, performed in the morning hours.

If hearing all the health benefits of exercise has you up off the couch but a little overwhelmed, take heart. Awareness is the first step in changing a habit for the better, and the important thing is to get started. Once you know the kind of exercise that works best for you, building your own routine will be your best prescription for better health.

Dr. Ghislaine Robert is a sports medicine physician for Viriginia Mason in Federal Way.

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