Sudden. Uncomfortable. Hot AF. That pretty much sums up a hot flash. And if you're in menopause, you're likely familiar.
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About 80 percent of people with ovaries at this stage in life experience the "sudden feeling of heat with sometimes a red, flushed face, sweating and heart palpitations," says Sherry A. Ross, MD, a board-certified ob-gyn and women's health expert at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
While it may feel like your body is combusting, the real issue is "your body's inappropriate response to small changes in temperature," says Susan Mitchell, MD, an ob-gyn with Northwestern Medicine at Delnor Hospital.
"Right around the time of menopause, women's bodies become very sensitive to even small increases in temperature, so when a woman's body gets just a little warmer, there is this extreme reaction to try and cool down the body," Dr. Mitchell explains.
When you have a hot flash, the hypothalamus — the part of the brain that regulates body temperature — mistakenly senses that you're warmer than you actually are, according to the North American Menopause Society.
This triggers a series of events in the body to cool down. Blood vessels in the skin begin to dilate, or become larger, which increases blood flow and releases body heat. This causes you to become flushed and sweat in an attempt to cool off. You might experience a cold chill after a hot flash, but not everyone does.
How Exercise Can Help Ease Hot Flashes
Hot flashes can feel pretty unbearable, leaving you less motivated to work out. After all, who wants to turn up the heat when you already feels like you're burning?
But the truth is, the more exercise you do, the better your chances are of curbing the intensity of hot flashes, Dr. Ross says. In fact, avoiding exercise is the last thing menopausal people should do. Being inactive puts you at risk for heart disease, high blood pressure and other chronic health problems that become more common as you get older.
A sedentary lifestyle can also worsen symptoms and conditions related to menopause, including fatigue, insomnia, depression, obesity and weight gain. FYI, losing weight may help ease hot flashes in menopausal women, according to a July 2010 study in JAMA Archives of Internal Medicine.
"Exercise — both cardio and strength training — can help to regulate body temperature by improving its ability to control heat dissipation," says personal trainer Carol Michaels, MBA, owner of Carol Michaels Fitness/Recovery Fitness.
A small July 2016 study in Menopause, which enlisted 21 menopausal women to follow a 16-week cardio workout program, suggests that exercise is not only linked to less severe hot flashes but also fewer bouts of them.
And in a small August 2019 study in Maturitas, women who did three 45-minute resistance training workouts over the course of 15 weeks saw improvements in moderate-to-severe hot flashes compared to those who didn't exercise.
Stepping up your strength training is key. Not only can it help ease hot flashes, it also helps maintain and develop lean muscle mass while preserving bone strength, says Brittany Robles, MD, MPH, an ob-gyn, certified trainer and owner of PostpartumTrainer, an online resource for helping new moms get fit.
Although everyone is different when it comes to what exercises may intensify your hot flashes, you might want to stick to the lower-intensity stuff. "Vigorous exercise, such as high-intensity interval training (HIIT), can raise your core body temperature so high that it may trigger hot flashes," Dr. Robles says. Instead, consider doing yoga, Pilates and other calming exercises, Dr. Ross says.
How to Manage Hot Flashes During Exercise
If you're experiencing hot flashes during a sweat session, there's no need to stop. According to Dr. Mitchell, working out is likely to bring one on, since it makes you hot and sweaty. But because you're already warm, a flash may actually feel less bothersome during exercise.
If you're still bothered, however, "you can strategize to help minimize them from ruining your exercise regimen," Dr. Ross says, "no matter what exercise you decide to do."
Here are some ways you can help ease hot flashes during your workout.
1. Decrease the Intensity
If you're really feeling the heat, consider taking things down a couple of notches. "Walk instead of jog on a treadmill; if performing a squat or lunge, only bend the knees slightly and if an exercise requires jumping, just lift the heels off the ground," Michaels says. You can also use lighter weights when strength training and do modified versions of HIIT, she says.
She also recommends more rest time in between sets if the hot flashes don't subside. Everyone recovers differently from hot flashes — they typically last between one to 10 minutes — so if necessary, take short breaks as needed or march in place until they subside, Michaels says.
"If the flashes are very severe and the lower-intensity exercises are not helping, then HIIT would not be appropriate, and ab work, Pilates or strength training using light weights would be a better choice," she says.
2. Take Deep Breaths
When hot flashes strike, Dr. Mitchell recommends doing deep, abdominal breathing to help reduce their intensity. "Take about five to six breaths a minute," she says.
"Do belly breaths for five seconds, then release for five seconds, continuing for five minutes," says Lindsay Ogden, a trainer at Life Time Fitness.
There's research suggesting it works: A small February 2013 study in Menopause found that women who practiced slow breathing twice a day for 15 minutes reported fewer hot flashes than those who practiced breathing at a regular pace once a day.
3. Keep H2O on Hand
Michaels says when her clients' faces turn red and they start to sweat because the heat starts to creep up, she has them immediately reach for ice water to help them cool down.
Sipping on ice water throughout your workout, as well as throughout the day, may help, Dr. Robles says.
"Staying well-hydrated will always be one of the most beneficial things you can do for your health and for your workouts," she says. "It regulates your body temperature, which can help cool you off; improves total-body circulation to help transport nutrients around your body to keep you energized; and decreases symptoms of dehydration, including fatigue, lightheadedness and cramping."
4. Wear Breathable Clothing
Even before you lift one weight or do one crunch, make sure you're wearing the right type of workout clothes. Opt for cool, breathable fabrics, which may help ease hot flashes if they occur, Dr. Ross says.
Dr. Robles also suggests dressing in layers that you can easily shed. That way, you can peel off a long-sleeve top to reveal a cute tee or tank when things heat up or remove hoodies and sweatshirts when exercising outdoors.
5. Seek Out Cold Air
Working out in a cool environment can be helpful, too. "Try to do the bulk of your exercises in a well-ventilated room or have a fan or AC unit close by," Dr. Robles says.
Keeping a cool towel nearby is also handy. "It is helpful to take a towel and wet it with cold water and place it on the wrists and the face," Michaels says.
6. Stay Positive
One of the best things you can do is to find calm. Your mindset can intensify hot flashes, Dr. Mitchell says. Know that your hot flash will pass and you will get through it. Ultimately, you should do your best to find ways to work around hot flashes instead of waiting for them to go away.
- Menopause: "Exercise Training Reduces the Frequency of Menopausal Hot Flushes By Improving Thermoregulatory Control"
- Maturitas: "Resistance Training for Hot Flushes in Postmenopausal Women: A Randomised Controlled Trial"
- Menopause: "Paced Breathing Compared With Usual Breathing for Hot Flashes"
- JAMA Archives of Internal Medicine: "An Intensive Behavioral Weight Loss Intervention and Hot Flushes in Women"
- The North American Menopause Society: "Menopause FAQs: Hot Flashes"