Your Body’s Future
If you haven’t noticed already, your body is playing by a new set of rules — causing a new bulge here, some excess avoirdupois there. These changes require a new approach to fitness, one that will not only help you feel and look better but also make menopause a whole lot easier. Want proof? In a three-year German study published last year, women who embarked on a program of three or more intense workouts a week were able to fend off major menopause demons: bone loss, increased heart disease risk, loss of muscle strength and aerobic capacity, plus insomnia, migraines, and mood swings. Exercise worked so well not only because the women worked out, but they worked out smarter. Small, consistent changes in your current routine will make all the difference.
IF YOU’VE BEEN Doing mostly cardio for fat-burning benefits
FROM NOW ON Do cardio that gives you other benefits too
"If you were doing 80 percent cardio and 20 percent strength training in your 30s, by your 40s you need to shift to 70 percent cardio and 30 percent strength, flexibility, and balance workouts," says Pamela Peeke, MD, author of Body for Life for Women. "And in your 60s, it needs to be 60 percent cardio and 40 percent strength and the other stuff." The changing ratio doesn’t mean you can cut back on cardio — it simply means you can’t skimp on other areas. Your best bet is to do crossover workouts that provide several benefits at once: Hiking, jumping rope, tennis, cross country skiing, and ice or inline skating can provide aerobic exercise and balance with strength and flexibility benefits too; a kickboxing class can cover your cardio, strength, and balance needs in just an hour.
IF YOU’VE BEEN Scheduling cardio three times a week for 30 minutes
FROM NOW ON Double up to six or seven times a week
"Maybe I’ll get to the gym" should no longer be part of your vocabulary. You need to fit in activity every day. A 2004 review of exercise studies done with women who had just completed menopause found that walking 30 minutes a day plus strength training twice a week preserved bone mass, increased muscle strength, and helped keep off extra pounds.
IF YOU’VE BEEN Occasionally breaking a sweat
FROM NOW ON Sweat a lot each session
"You can live a lifetime without thinking, months without food, and days without water, but you’ll only last minutes without oxygen," says Walter M. Bortz II, MD, a professor of medicine at Stanford University. In exercise terms, that means you need high-intensity cardio that increases your lung capacity and works your heart.
"While people focus on cholesterol and blood pressure numbers, fitness level may be a stronger predictor of heart attacks," says Miriam Nelson, PhD, of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science at Tufts University. A 2004 study found that exercise leads to a 30 to 50 percent reduction in cardiovascular disease in women. Like any muscle, your heart needs to be challenged, so add hills, speed, or distance.
IF YOU’VE BEEN Hit or miss with a stretching routine
FROM NOW ON Stretch daily
Of all the fitness variables, flexibility is the one we lose fastest with age, says Lawrence Golding, PhD, an exercise physiologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "Older people can remain very flexible, but they must work at it daily."
The key body parts to stretch are hamstrings, hip flexors, quadriceps, calves, back, and shoulders. Allot 10 minutes at the end of each workout for simple moves.
IF YOU’VE BEEN Blasé about bettering your balance
FROM NOW ON Focus on finding physical balance
Around 50, your sense of equilibrium may start to falter. Test yourself: Put on a pair of pants while standing on one leg. "If you need to grab the wall, start balance training," Nelson says. Challenge your balance with tennis, skiing, yoga, Pilates, or tai chi. Practice daily: Stand on one foot while waiting in line, putting on socks, or tying a shoe.
IF YOU’VE BEEN Sticking to one routine
FROM NOW ON Cross-train
Consistency is important, but so is variety. You may love the rhythm of a daily brisk walk, but if that’s all you do, you won’t necessarily get stronger or healthier at this age. In fact, you can end up with muscle imbalances that can lead to injury. Mix it up at least two to three days a week.
More Tips, continued
IF YOU’VE BEEN Taking calcium for your bones
FROM NOW ON Do weight-bearing exercise and strength training three times a week for 45 minutes as well
Bone loss speeds up as you approach menopause. After your periods stop, you can lose 1 to 5 percent of bone density every year, Nelson says. Weight-bearing exercise doesn’t just mean pumping iron; it’s any activity in which your body is moving and bearing its own weight — walking, tennis, skipping rope. Using your body weight for push-ups, downward-facing dogs, squats, and lunges counts too.
Some weight training is good, but more is better. Target places that need extra toning (such as the abs), injury protection (such as the back), or bone-building (such as the arms and shoulders, which cardio doesn’t hit). If you can breeze through your routine and don’t feel a little bit sore the next day, bump it up. Add 10 percent more reps or weight every four to six weeks.
IF YOU’VE BEEN Doing crunches for flatter abs
FROM NOW ON Do a targeted routine to tackle your pooch
During menopause your weight may shift to make you rounder in the stomach — what Peeke calls "the dreaded menopot." A bulging belly has been linked to increased risk for conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Yoga, Pilates, or abdominal work on a stability ball will strengthen your abs and back muscles and protect your spine from the natural tendency — particularly after age 50 — to bend forward.
IF YOU’VE BEEN Skipping workouts because you feel crummy
FROM NOW ON Work out to keep yourself from feeling crummy
Regular exercise can regulate hormone levels, which can mean fewer hot flashes, night sweats, and episodes of erratic bleeding. It also eases achiness. Your body gets stiff and your joint lubrication wears out as you get older. If you have aches and pains that make it tough to walk, jog in a pool or pedal on a recumbent bike. Whatever you do, don’t sit still, or you’ll get stiffer.
Originally published in MORE magazine, December 2005/January 2006.