The big M — menopause. You likely dread it but know you can't avoid it, either. Most women enter menopause anywhere from their late-40s to mid-50s, with the average age being 52. But like most things in life, menopause isn't one-size-fits-all, and some women transition to menopause as early as their mid- to late-30s.
Even if you haven't had the pleasure of experiencing night sweats, wicked mood swings, irritability, brain fog or soaking through your workout clothes before you even leave the house, you know those symptoms (and more) are on their way.
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Menopause is inevitable, but you're not powerless against these bothersome symptoms. In addition to hormonal therapies, menopause diet-related changes and certain dietary supplements, physical activity is an excellent tool for staying fit and feeling your best through this transition.
Benefits of Exercise During Menopause
Exercise plays a key role in heading off unpleasant symptoms during every phase of perimenopause (the transition before menopause) and menopause itself. It induces hormonal responses from the body and can strengthen bones, improve balance and prevent joint stiffness.
Specifically, anaerobic exercise like strength training causes the body to secrete human growth hormone, which promotes lean muscle mass, according to a 2019 study from the International Journal of Health Sciences. That's important, as women naturally start to lose muscle mass after menopause. Exercise also plays a significant role in helping to prevent osteoporosis.
And yes, exercise also plays a role in weight management during menopause, according to the Mayo Clinic. One of the most frequent complaints from women going through menopause is maintaining their weight, which comes as no surprise, since difficulty losing weight and weight gain are some of the first signs of perimenopause and menopause.
The benefits go well beyond the physical, though. An April 2020 study from the journal Menopause found that women who were moderately or very physically active experienced depressive symptoms less often and had higher positive affectivity scores.
Check out more of our 20-minute workouts here — we’ve got something for everyone.
Full-Body Workout to Help Manage Menopause Symptoms
All you need is set of dumbbells or a kettlebell for this workout from hormone-balancing fitness expert Debra Atkinson, CSCS, creator of Flipping 50, which helps women over 50 get and stay active. It's a quick and simple way to target all of the major muscle groups in under 20 minutes.
Do: 5 minutes of dynamic stretches and walking or jogging in place.
Do: 15 to 20 reps for each exercise and repeat the circuit two time through. As you get stronger, increase the amount of weight and do 2 to 3 rounds of 12 to 15 reps for each exercise.
- Bent-over row
- Chest press
Move 1: Squat
The squat is a compound exercise, meaning it targets multiple muscles and joints at the same time. And by strengthening the muscles in your lower body and core, you're able to move easier and perform daily tasks better.
- Stand with feet a little wider than shoulder-width apart. Arms at your sides.
- Extend your arms out in front of you as you slowly bend your legs to squat down. While bending, focus on pushing your hips like you're going to sit on a chair.
- Squat down until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Arms will still be out in front of you and your gaze looking straight ahead.
- Pause in this position. Exhale, and reverse the move by pressing into the mid-foot to straighten legs and stand up. As you rise, lower your arms back to your side.
You can do squats as either a body-weight exercise (as described above) or add a set of dumbbells (held at your side throughout the move) or a kettlebell (held in front of your chest).
Move 2: Bent-Over Row
The bent-over row is another compound exercise that targets the muscles in your upper back as well as your arms and core. Since the risk of developing osteoporosis increases as you age, performing strength training exercises for the back is one of the best things you can do when designing an exercise program.
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand and stand with feet shoulder-width apart.
- Bend your knees slightly and hinge your torso forward by bending at the waist.
- Keep your upper body still and lift the dumbbells to the sides of your chest, elbow pointing toward the ceiling.
- Squeeze at the top and pause.
- Slowly lower the weights to the starting position.
Move 3: Chest Press
Another compound exercise (notice a trend, here?), the chest press targets the muscles in your chest, shoulders and triceps, which allow you to work all of the pushing muscles at once. Performing exercises like the chest press can help to increase bone density, while building functional strength to perform tasks such as lifting overhead or pushing a heavy object.
- Lie on your back on the ground with a dumbbell in each hand.
- Bend your knees and extend your elbows to a 90-degree position. The back of your arms will touch the floor.
- Press the dumbbells up over your chest until they're almost touching. Pause.
- Lower the weights back down to the start and repeat.
Move 4: Plank
If there's one exercise that puts your core muscles to the test, it's the plank. This move not only targets the core muscles as a whole, but it also engages muscles from head to toes. And having a strong core helps prevent lower back pain, improves your posture, aids in balance and stability and allows you to perform physical activities easier.
- Start on all fours, then press up as if you were going to do a push-up — hands shoulder-width apart and directly under your shoulders. Your body should be in a straight line from your shoulders to your ankles.
- Bring your belly button to spine to engage your core muscles and squeeze your glutes.
- Hold this position for 30 seconds. As you get stronger, increase your time by 10-second intervals, up to 60-seconds.
If you’re unable to keep your spine in a neutral position, drop to your knees.
Do: 5 minutes of stretching for the legs, shoulders, chest and arms.
More Tips to Keep You Moving
There are going to be days, and sometimes several in a row, when you don't feel like exercising. The good news, says Atkinson, is that doing less exercise with more purpose is an excellent way to get going.
In other words, you don't need to grind out hours of cardio to benefit from exercise. In fact, doing too much, especially overdoing aerobic exercise, can be counterproductive. With that in mind, here are some tips to help you stay motivated and moving.
1. Time your workouts. Believe it or not, when you do your workouts may be just as important as what you do. Atkinson recommends more intense exercise early in the day and lighter workouts at night to work with your hormones, not against them.
2. Find a workout you love. "Any type of exercise is worth doing, since being inactive not only puts you at risk for heart disease, high blood pressure and other chronic health problems but it also leads to weight gain, obesity, fatigue, insomnia and depression," says Sherry Ross, MD, OB/GYN and women's health expert at Providence Saint John's Health Center. All these symptoms worsen the transition into menopause.
3. Flow through some yoga poses. Yoga is good for you at any age, but during menopause, it's fairly effective at managing menopausal symptoms, especially those related to sleep disturbances. When your motivation is low, try moving through a yoga sequence. You'll be amazed at how good you will feel (or at the very least, not as bad).
4. Work on your balance and stability. The sooner you can incorporate specific exercises that target balance and stability, the easier it'll be to avoid falls and other accidents as you get older. Yoga, Pilates and single-leg exercises all help to improve your balance and they're easy to fit into a busy day when you don't feel like going to the gym.
- Mayo Clinic: Perimenopause
- Harvard Health: The 4 most important types of exercise
- International Journal of Health Sciences: Effect of aerobic and anaerobic exercise on estrogen level, fat mass, and muscle mass among postmenopausal osteoporotic females
- Harvard Health: Winning the weight battle after menopause
- May Clinic: Menopause weight gain: Stop the middle age spread
- Harvard Health: The Lowdown on Squats
- Mayo Clinic: Exercising with osteoporosis: Stay active the safe way
- Journal of Mid-Life Health: Exercise beyond menopause: Dos and Don’ts
- ACE Fitness: Plank Variations | 5 Plank Variations to Strengthen Your Core
- Harvard Health: The real-world benefits of strengthening your core
- Journal of Mid-Life Health: Yoga and menopausal transition
- Menopause: The role of physical activity in the link between menopausal status and mental well-being