WHAT HAPPENS DURING PERI/POST MENOPAUSE?
THE ROLE OF ESTROGEN FOR EXERCISE:
- Estrogen is an anabolic hormone, anabolic means muscle building, basically like Testosterone in men but it does not create as much muscle mass. Without Estrogen, your body isn’t as good at building muscle.
- Estrogen is very important for your muscles to contract and generate power and force – so think press ups, the force is pushing your body weight up from the floor. Think of the power involved when doing a burpee, jumping back into the press up position then jumping legs in & jumping up – all of that needs power and estrogen is involved in making that happen. When Estrogen flatlines the stimulus for those muscle contractions is gone.
- Estrogen supports Mitochondria Function – So talking about muscles only for this, the mitochondria are like little batteries inside the cells of your muscle and these take the carbohydrate (glycogen) that is stored in your muscle along with oxygen, that gets transported to the muscles in your bloodstream when we start to workout, and by chemical reaction turns the glycogen & oxygen into energy. When we do cardio type workouts like running, biking etc it boosts the function of these powerhouses, because the more oxygen the mitochondria receives the more, they adapt to perform faster and better to produce the energy. BUT when we use oxygen to burn fat and produce energy (carbohydrates do not work on their own to produce energy, we need to use fat as well) you get, what we call “free radicals” which is a waste type molecule that can damage your healthy cells. But luckily your body does produce antioxidants that help get rid of these free radicals so you can recover fitter and stronger. BUT guess what……. Estrogen is instrumental in that process, as it helps the mitochondria sweep out those free radicals. So, when we lose Estrogen during menopause, we need to add nutritional support to help get rid of these free radicals! You might of heard of antioxidant rich food like Vitamin A, C and E (Dark Chocolate, Blueberries, Strawberries, Raspberries, Kale, Red Cabbage, Beans, Beets, Spinach) – there are more if you google it, but these foods will do what estrogen use to do.
WHY EXERCISE AND THE TYPE OF EXERCISE IS IMPORTANT ONCE YOU ARE IN YOUR MENOPAUSE YEARS AND ONWARDS.
The fact is, everyone, Men and Women, naturally loses muscle and strength with age. The years around menopause can make this worse, as estrogen is essential for muscle building. Women lose strength quicker due to menopause because our hormones decline rapidly, whereas men’s decline at a much slower rate.
BUT it doesn’t have to be this way, we can definitely put muscle back on and retain more of it through properly performed resistance training and the most effective is STRENGTH – HEAVY LIFTING!
The reason we need heavy lifting rather than lighter with lots of reps is because lighter is not enough of a stimulus in the muscle to stimulate what estrogen used to do in building muscle.
Heavy lifting creates:
- INCREASED METABOLIC RATE: (because you are waking up more muscle fibres). Muscle requires a lot of energy to exist, so when you increase your metabolic rate, you increase the number of calories you’re using at rest, because remember, the body is still burning calories to keep it alive. So, this is good news and a good reason to lift heavy eh! And it uses more fat as fuel to burn those calories.
- IMPROVED POSTURE AND STABILITY: joint strength and mobility become an issue with age, and especially with the onset of menopause because these hormones had a role in keeping your joints stable. By lifting heavy you are stimulating your tendons (these are what connect your muscles to your bones) to increase their tension, which will give you better overall stability in your joints and increase the ability of your muscles to support those joints when doing hard work. The muscles that stabilise and support your spine, degrade with age but all your posture muscles within your trunk are put to work when you lift heavy weights to stabilise otherwise you would just collapse in a heap!
You need to think about both these in everyday life too, carrying shopping, lifting boxes, getting out the bath, getting out of bed, getting out of the car! The list can go on and on if you really think about it. And all of these will get harder and harder as you age if you don’t do something about it now!
- STRONGER BONES: lifting heavy is very good for remodelling your bones and improving bone density. Because the harder the muscle’s tendons pull on your bones the bigger the stimulation for your bones to remodel stronger. Your body is always adapting to the stress you put it under. Think Osteoporosis, this is the biggest cause of hip fractures in older age and due to the lack of balance and stability which initially causes the fall.
- BETTER BLOOD PRESSURE CONTROL: lifting heavy improves cardiovascular health. It increases the ability for your veins/arteries to dilate & restrict more readily, giving you better blood flow to and from your muscles and your skin. (Think this dilate/restrict is like muscle contractions that push the blood through the veins/arteries.)
- MAINTENANCE OF HEALTHY BODY COMPOSITION: lifting heavy helps with maintaining/improving lean muscle and reduces fat gain. Remember, as estrogen declines, so does our anabolic (muscle-building) stimulus and we start storing fat more easily, especially in our abdominal area. By lifting heavy, you send your muscles an anabolic signal (muscle building signal), telling them that they need to be strong to overcome this stress, which stimulates your body to build more muscle and decrease fat storage. Heavy lifting is much more effective for changing body composition than endurance base lifting (10+ reps) or cardiovascular exercise (running, biking, etc) especially during menopause and after.
WHAT IF I’M TAKING HRT?
Now some of you might be thinking, well I’m ok, because I’m on HRT. Well, I’m sorry to tell you, HRT is not good for body composition, strength, stability, balance etc, it is fantastic for menopause symptoms like hot flushes, anxiety, joint pain, etc and preventing osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease and brain health but not for body composition, and here is why:
All of your cells and tissues have receptors which are proteins attached to the cells and tissues (now think of these as little ears or antennae’s), and your hormones are the messengers for the cells and tissues to be able to respond (basically if you want them to produce energy, the hormone gets produced to tell the muscle cell’s mitochondria to do it’s stuff to create energy). These receptors dimmish with age and the Estrogen Receptor Alpha which controls metabolism of sugar, insulin intolerance, muscle function, mitochondria power and fat tissue is one of the first to decline. So, it doesn’t matter how much estrogen (HRT) you throw at it, to get the receptor to listen so the muscle cell can work because the receptor is not there in the same strength or concentration as it was, it can’t hear the message and therefore can not let that message into the cell or tissue. But all this extra hormone upsets the rest of the body and so a side effects occur, which is weight gain.
The reason HRT works for symptoms is because there are some estrogen receptors still there (as we have 12 types altogether) so that’s why it works well for treating some symptoms and preventing bone loss. But turning our physiology back to PRE menopause it doesn’t do, unfortunately, we can not turn the clocks back to our 30 year old selves body. The symptoms it helps with will also depend on your genetics too.
WHAT YOU NEED TO DO
You will need to build you up slowly if you are new to exercise, and especially new to resistance/weight training. So firstly, start with stability, mobility, and core, because these are the building blocks that need to be in place before any type of load or jumping can be added. When you have good stability, you can move quickly and powerfully, with greater ease and less risk of injury. Having good mobility enables you to move the way you want without being restricted by too much stiffness or by imbalances. It makes your more stable because you can adjust and catch yourself when knocked off balance. Also, Yoga because it not only helps with all the above, but it also helps control breathing, improve your breathing, and bring you into a more parasympathetic nervous system (rest & digest).
The next stage would be adding in a little bit of cardiovascular low impact work like stair climbing as we still need to be cardiovascular fit. If you have been doing triathlons or running etc this will not be new for you and this area will not need to be developed from scratch.
The next staGe would be brinGing in a small amount of plyometric work (jumping) as this helps with insulin sensitivity (Insulin is a hormone and what it does is act like a key to open up the cell to let glucose in, so if you are insulin sensitive the cell will not be able to take on the glucose and so the fat cells will take it on instead). It will also improve bone density (while running helps build bones, it is far less effective than jumping, because running is one-directional stress and too similar to the stress your bones get when walking/daily tasks and your body adapts to the stress you generally put on it. So, if you want your bones to adapt to be stronger, they need more multidirectional stimulus).
The strength can progress by adding bands, weights (which can be items around the house, or filled up water bottles if you don’t have any), and kettlebells or dumbbells etc.
HIIT/Sprint training provides the stimulus to trigger body composition changes that our hormones helped us achieve on our premenopausal years. So, the biggest benefit from HIIT training will be improvement in body composition (reduction in fat storage), as it increases muscle and reduces fat in a relatively short period of time. It coaxes your body into burning more fat for energy when you’re NOT exercising. The type of work involved is hard exercise followed by relatively short recovery periods, for example you might do intervals like 20s max effort, 10s rest, or other ratios like 30:30, 40:40 but the ratios are usually all under 1min. BUT before this happens, if you are new to exercise, you should build up through the RPE scale (Rate of Perceived Exertion) starting at level 6 which means fairly uncomfortable, RPE 7 becoming uncomfortable, RPE 8 Hard, RPE 9 very hard, RPE 10 extremely hard! Building through this scale so your fitness builds gradually so by the time you are scheduled to work at RPE 10, you are fit enough to handle that type of intensity.
This journey should not just about losing weight but about going into older age stronger and fitter and ABLE. Not puffing and panting when you have to walk up a small flight of stairs or struggling to get out of the car or bath or up off the floor. To be stable and have balance to not be at such a big risk of falling and breaking a hip. To have good posture and not end up with rounded shoulders, head forwards and hips bent. To have the energy to play with grandchildren and be their Super Gran 😂👵