We ask the same questions of ourselves again and again: How can I start fresh? How can I achieve the goals I always wanted to achieve and become the person I have always wanted to be? For many women, the answer is connected to their physical health and their conclusion to engage in more exercise — a lot more exercise! Many embark on a journey of intense and punishing fitness goals, and we know what tends to happen next. Not only does it become very difficult to maintain the same level of intensity and consistency, but these unrealistic resolutions can lead to the exact opposite result of exhaustion, defeat, and rejection of exercise completely.
As a fitness professional, I’ve seen these patterns a lot. I can certainly understand the psychology of this process, and I have so much empathy for those who go through it. What’s most heartbreaking to me is when I realize how many women put themselves through the paces of intense exercise that not only feels exhausting and painful but that can actually work against the goals they are trying to achieve. This is especially true over the age of 50, and most women have no idea that this is happening!
Instead of approaching fitness resolutions with the assumption that more intense exercise is always preferable, I suggest asking new questions: How do I achieve my goals at this stage in my life? How can I get in touch with my body better and achieve optimum health and wellness as an individual? Who can help me get there?
The fitness industry is not designed for all of us – or maybe any of us.
We are living in the midst of a fitness boom, which is generally a great thing. We have a lot more choices for exercise, and it’s exciting that most people are recognizing the importance of fitness for our health and longevity. Unfortunately, however, this boom coincides with the belief that more intensity in exercise is better — “no pain, no gain!” Lots of women in their youth notice that the more they exercise and the less they eat, the skinnier they get (and the more people compliment them!). They continue through their life believing in this cause and effect relationship with fitness and food, and they become disillusioned when it becomes harder and harder to achieve the same goals. Is there something wrong with them? Why don’t these same behaviors lead to the same results??
If you look at the fitness industry as a whole, most fitness methods that arrive on the scene are intended for an extremely resilient (and young) body. They emphasize intensity and encourage their patrons to “push past their limits” and “reach new heights.” There’s a “mind over matter” philosophy that basically encourages you to ignore signals from your body. You must push past what you perceive as your limits to gain more strength and get the body you really want. The only true marker of achievement is exhaustion and soreness. Otherwise, you will stay in mediocrity. Well, that’s the message at least…
What we are finding more and more is that so many of these messages work against women of all ages, but they are especially toxic once women enter perimenopause and menopause. Women at the menopause stage could benefit tremendously from educated fitness guidance. Exercise can be incredibly helpful at this time, although some of it can feel counterintuitive to women who have exercised rigorously their whole life. What is important to know is that exercise can be a wonderful tool for helping relieve stress, improve sleep, lose weight, and achieve a life of greater balance and longevity. However, so many old fitness tenets are wrong for us at this stage. In fact, they may never have truly worked for us anyway.
In order to know how to approach exercise over the age of 50, it’s important to break down some of the common fitness myths, especially as they relate to women during and after menopause.
I remember watching women in college work out on the Stairmaster for hours and hours, and that jumpstarted my own belief that more cardio was better. In fact, high levels of cardio can cause you to lose muscle mass, which decreases your metabolism. Thus, it becomes harder to lose weight in the long-term. Additionally, high levels of cardio can increase cortisol levels significantly, which affects your sleep and can contribute to greater hormone imbalance, cause adrenal fatigue, and add to visceral fat stores. Cardio should be balanced by strength-training and lower impact exercise, and it may not be the answer at all when you are very fatigued. More on this below…
This takes us back to the cortisol issue. Intense exercise (especially in combination with a stressful lifestyle) can lead to increased cortisol levels. Cortisol can disrupt much-needed sleep. It can also lead to increased inflammation and increased fat around the abdominal and diaphragmatic areas, which can increase your risk for heart disease and contribute to metabolic syndrome. Additionally, high cortisol levels decrease progesterone levels, which already decline during perimenopause. Progesterone is normally a key player in maintaining calm, happiness, and clarity. Women in perimenopause who exercise too intensely and raise cortisol levels that might already be high due to stress are in danger of experiencing greater anxiety, depression, and mood swings in addition to increases in fat stores.
Exercise can often be a great way to “wake up” during the day. However, sleeplessness can be a symptom of menopause and can be extra tricky in connection with exercise. During menopause, declining estrogen levels in addition to higher cortisol levels can affect the production of melatonin, which disrupts sleep. Sleeplessness can lead to disruption in women’s ability to produce hormones like growth hormone and DHEA that aid in muscle and immune system recovery, which is already affected by low estrogen levels in menopause. It’s important, therefore, to be mindful of your sleep patterns since you can’t recover as well from exercise on reduced sleep. To avoid injury and further sleep disruption, lower intensity exercise is usually the best solution until better sleep resumes.
The first thing I suggest to women over 50 who are getting into a new fitness routine is to start paying more attention to their body signals. What kind of exercise feels good to your body? Are you feeling exhausted at the end of your workout, or do you feel energized? What kind of exercise feels enjoyable and sustainable for the long-term? This article is not meant to discourage exercise at all but rather encourage you to find what truly works for your body. Staying at a level that is reasonable but still challenging can help improve your mood significantly, give you more energy, prevent injury, and stave off a host of diseases and age-related physical changes.
It’s unfortunate that very little fitness education focuses on aging in women. Do your research, and find fitness professionals with sensitivity to individual differences who understand menopause and women’s health. It can be challenging but enormously worth it.
Strength training helps build muscle mass, which can increase your metabolism and simultaneously slow bone loss that can lead to osteoporosis. Strength training and increased lean muscle mass can also improve estrogen levels, which can help offset menopausal estrogen decline. A great option is to combine both cardio (moderate to low impact) with strength training in your workouts or forego cardio altogether if it doesn’t feel good for your body.
I haven’t addressed this yet, but estrogen plays a significant role in cognitive functioning, and some menopausal women complain of brain fog and memory issues. Regular exercise is associated with improved executive functioning (e.g., planning and juggling several things at once) and an overall reduction in loss of brain tissue in later life. Research has also found that consistent exercise can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, an incredible bonus.
We have seen that too much exercise can be detrimental; however, exercise plays such a key role in improving mood, improving cardiac fitness, reducing blood pressure, stimulating the brain, and decreasing the risk of so many conditions like cancer, diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease. Research suggests that 3-5 hours per week for women 55-59 is ideal, but even lower amounts like 72 minutes/week can improve your fitness level.
What’s the takeaway in all of this? Consider making exercise a regular part of your life, and do it in a way that feels enjoyable, sustainable, and reasonable for your body. Don’t necessarily back away from a challenge, but rethink old ways of associating pain and self-punishment with positive gains. I love taking some time at the beginning of a new year to think about the year I am about to enter and what I can accomplish for myself. Instead of a “resolution,” consider envisioning an overall lifestyle that feels healthy, happy, and inspiring. And start today!
Guest Author: For over a decade-plus, Mahri has been working with women to curate workouts that fit each woman’s individual needs. As an AFPA Pre and Postnatal Exercise specialist, a Postnatal Corrective Exercise Specialist, a NASM Certified Personal Trainer, and a NASM Corrective Exercise Specialist, Mahri works with women to safely exercise throughout all stages of their lives. She’s also a Certified Wellness and Nutrition Consultant. Mahri’s mission throughout her career has been to help you tap into your unique strengths and flourish as the best version of YOU!