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Exercise to Build Muscle: A Natural Remedy for Menopause Symptoms

Menopause marks a significant chapter in a woman’s life, bringing about changes and challenges. A key aspect of navigating this transitional phase is recognizing the positive impact exercise – particularly strength training – can have on supporting overall well-being.

During menopause, many women experience vasomotor symptoms, such as hot flashes and night sweats. Incorporating exercise into your daily routine can be helpful in managing their intensity and frequency. Physical activity has also been shown to reduce the stress hormone cortisol, which is associated with the physiological stress response.

It’s interesting to note that research suggests that the severity, rather than the frequency, of hot flashes is also linked to an elevated risk of cardiovascular disease in women. By engaging in regular exercise, women can manage their symptoms as well as reduce the risk of several chronic health conditions that become more prevalent during menopause due to estrogen deficiency, including:

In short, staying active can make a real difference!

How Menopause Affects Weight and Heart Health

After menopause, estrogen levels decrease leading to vasomotor symptoms, mood changes, and more. These symptoms can impact sleep, energy levels, heart health, and body composition.

While menopause can lead to an increase in total body fat, it also decreases lean body mass (muscle), which means that menopause impacts, body composition. The distribution of body fat changes with a greater tendency for weight gain around the midsection compared to the lower body.

This weight gain around the midsection, called Central Obesity, can lead to metabolic issues like unstable blood sugar levels, abnormal lipid/cholesterol levels, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease. Considering that cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in postmenopausal women, weight management is an important area of our work at Harrison.

The Role of Exercise

Research consistently indicates that physically active women experience fewer and less severe menopausal symptoms compared to their sedentary counterparts. Women who are physically active prior to menopause report fewer symptoms, and sedentary women experiencing menopausal symptoms see a reduction after adopting an exercise routine.

While there are no specific exercises known to mitigate vasomotor symptoms, engaging in daily physical activity can help improve heart health, maintain bone density and muscle mass, and decrease stress levels.

In general terms, we aim for a minimum of 150 minutes per week of aerobic activities at moderate intensity plus strength training twice a week. This is the baseline from which a custom routine should be created. Your Harrison Exercise Physiologist can design a routine based on your unique health profile which may include more or less of cardio and strength training and account for specific styles of physical activity best suited to your interests and lifestyle.

Mitigating Weight Gain During Menopause

Since we cannot target specific areas of our body for weight loss, adopting a well-rounded diet with high protein intake, good quality carbohydrates, and veggies is crucial. Strength training at least 2x per week can help build muscle mass. It is worth noting that muscle burns more calories (6 cals/hour) than fat (2 cals/hour) even at rest. Thus, increasing muscle mass can effectively boost your metabolism. Strength training will also help mitigate the risks of low bone density and lost muscle mass.

Strength Training Strategy: Progressive Overload

Progressive overload is a strength training technique that focuses on gradually increasing the intensity of workouts to avoid a plateau in muscle growth and strength. It’s an essential part of a successful workout regimen, particularly for those looking to gain muscle mass and strength.

It’s important to progressively overload your muscles every few weeks when strength training. Choose an intensity that makes you feel fatigued by the last two reps of each set – then take a 40 to 60 second break to allow your muscles to replenish their energy sources.

There are several ways progressive overload can be implemented:

  • Increasing your reps: By adding 2 more repetitions to your set while maintaining the same weight, you increase the overall volume of your workout, which can lead to muscle growth.
  • Increasing the weight: If you’re comfortable with the current number of repetitions, you can increase the weight you’re lifting. This adds further stress to your muscles, stimulating growth and strength.
  • Increasing the tempo: This involves lengthening the time under tension for the muscles. For example, as you squat, the “down” (eccentric) phase can be extended from 3 to 5 seconds. You can also add a 2 second pause at the bottom or halfway through the movement to increase muscle engagement.

Without progressively overloading the muscles, you eventually reach a plateau and stop seeing muscular adaptations. This means you won’t continue to reap the full benefits of strength training, so find an expert who can help you make it sustainable over time.

The Benefits of Strength Training and HIIT

Strength training has a higher EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption) than aerobic training. This means that for up to 24 hours after exercising, you burn more calories at rest than you would if you hadn’t trained or had only done aerobic work. As a result, while building muscle, you’re also reducing body fat, provided your calorie intake is lower than your calorie output.

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) can be incredibly beneficial for weight management and improving cardiovascular health. A typical HIIT workout progression (beginner to advanced) might include the following:

Framework: 20 minutes total 40 seconds of work, followed by 20 seconds of rest, using a variety of exercises.

Lunge progression:
  1. Front foot elevated lunges
  2. Standard lunges
  3. Lunges with knee drive
Squat progression:
  1. Sit to stands
  2. Squats
  3. Squat jumps
  4. Weighted squats
Core/abdominal progression:
  1. Wall plank
  2. Floor plank
  3. Mountain climbers
  4. Bear crawls
  5. Plank shoulder taps
Cardiovascular progression:
  1. Recumbent or stationary bike/ elliptical / treadmill 
  2. Jumping jacks
  3. High knees
  4. Burpees
Push-ups/upper body strength progression:
  1. Wall push-ups
  2. Box push ups
  3. Floor push ups
  4. Pike push-ups

Modifications can easily be made to these examples based on your unique needs. Connect with a Harrison Exercise Physiologist for personalized recommendations.

Important Takeaways: Menopause, Weight Gain, and Cardiovascular Health

Menopause is associated with changes in body composition and metabolism, often leading to weight gain. Several factors contribute to this weight gain:

  • Hormonal Changes: A decrease in estrogen and progesterone, two key female sex hormones, leads to an increase in fat storage, particularly around the abdomen.
  • Muscle Loss: Our muscle mass decreases 3-8% per decade after the age of 30, which can lead to a lower resting metabolic rate and potential weight gain if calorie intake remains the same.
  • Lifestyle Factors: Increases in stress (cortisol), decreases in sleep, and physical activity all play a role in weight gain.
  • Changes in Fat Distribution: There’s often a shift in fat distribution from the hips and thighs to the abdominal area, known as visceral adipose tissue. This comes with a higher risk of various health issues, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome.

Mitigating cardiovascular risk during menopause can be achieved through:

  • Engaging in 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity weekly and at least two strength training sessions.
  • Decreasing sedentary time to less than 8 hours a day and no more than 3 hours at a time.
  • Regularly getting 8-9 hours of quality sleep.
  • Keeping stress levels low.

By understanding these factors and implementing progressive overload strength training, HIIT or a custom designed program, you have the opportunity to better manage your weight and maintain your overall health during menopause and beyond.

Changing daily habits and challenging yourself to new exercise styles can be intimidating and difficult to maintain over the long term. The Harrison Exercise Physiologist team can help you make the changes that best suit your health and your lifestyle. Get in touch with your team today.


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