Starting around age 50, women face a whole new range of health issues, including menopause. The aging process speeds up around age 50, especially since women’s bodies are producing less estrogen. Some people believe that exercise can’t help you once you reach a certain age, but that’s not true. A consistent walking program can help menopausal women in many ways, according to Alice Lesch Kelly, a writer for Walking magazine. Here are a few:
- A loss of heart-protecting estrogen causes cardiovascular risk to rise, but walking – which raises HDL (good cholesterol) and lowers LDL (bad cholesterol) as well as blood pressure – offsets some of that risk.
- The beta-endorphins that our brain releases during exercise can lessen mood swings.
- Loss of estrogen can bring on insomnia, but exercise can improve both quality and quantity of sleep.
Menopausal women are also at risk for osteoarthritis and osteoporosis. About 20 million Americans suffer from osteoarthritis, a painful disease that causes joint cartilage to degenerate. It mainly affects the hands, feet, knees and hips. A 1997 study funded by the National Institute on Aging found that people with moderately severe osteoarthritis of the knee who exercise in moderation have less pain than those who lead sedentary lifestyles.
About 28 million Americans (80% of them women) have osteoporosis, a loss of bone that can lead to fractures. Estrogen (the glue that keeps calcium and other minerals in the bones) protects our bones before menopause, but after menopause those minerals leak out, leaving bones brittle and porous. According to Dr. Warren A. Katz, chief of rheumatology at the University of Pennsylvania Health System Presbyterian Medicine Center, brisk walking is an ideal exercise. It can be done anywhere, requires no special equipment (except for a good pair of walking shoes), and carries minimal risk of injury. If walking is too difficult or painful, workouts on a stationary exercise cycle are a good alternative. The full benefits come from a regular schedule – at least 15 to 20 minutes of walking or cycling three to four days per week. If you haven’t been active for years, start at whatever level is comfortable for you. Five-minute walks are fine at first, but try to increase the length by one minute every other time you exercise, until you reach the optimal level.
Lifting weights or using strength-training machines every three days also strengthen bone. Strength-training is a slow process, so start at a low level and build up gradually over several months. As muscles strengthen, gradually add more weight. It is important to follow a program designed by your doctor or physical therapist. If you join a fitness facility, be sure you ask a certified trainer to show you proper techniques and form. Stiffness the morning after exercise is normal, but if you’re in pain, your joints are swollen, or you’re limping, stop the program until you are recovered, and cut your weights and repetitions by 25-50%. If bone, joint or muscle pain is severe, call your doctor.
Some benefits of muscular strength and endurance are not only being able to lift objects, but your own body weight as well. With lower body training, you will have improved ability to rise from chairs and the bed; be able to walk without a cane or less reliance on a cane; have increased ability to perform daily tasks; have improved walking speed, and better posture. Also, improved leg strength is an important part of maintaining balance and preventing falls. Balance is found to decrease with age and is one of the reasons elderly people have so many falls. Exercise and activity have been found to improve balance.
You can’t stop menopause, but you can lessen the risks that come with it by staying active.
Exercise will improve the quality of your life, as well as lengthen it.