Moderate exercise has been the go-to standard recommendation for decades. In fact, it’s a hangover effect from the 80s and 90s. Science currently suggests that for all populations, high intensity and low intensity reap more optimal results. If you’re in menopause, there is more proof.
First, moderate exercise has little to no association with improvements in helping hot flashes. Second, the higher the fitness level upon entering menopause, the fewer menopause symptoms women report.
The Road to Higher Fitness
Higher levels of fitness occur from exercise of adequate intensity. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) and strength training performed to the point of muscular fatigue are two ways to reach adequate intensity.
There’s one exception, however. That is the woman who is already exhausted from an all-source stress collective who should start with less exercise. If you’re already run ragged from caring for aging parents, running the business, or handling the household, running on a treadmill could easily mean feeling worse.
A woman in menopause is more susceptible to the negative effects of stress. Cortisol, which is both your stress and energy hormone, determines whether you burn or store fat. As estrogen levels go down during menopause, cortisol levels rise. So the hormone changes can wreak havoc on menopausal symptoms and physical well-being.
Moderate Exercise Problems
Moderate intensity level exercise falls into what I call a “no benefits zone.” That’s true for almost any exercise, but at midlife, it’s more important. If you’re in menopause and want to target stubborn weight or, specifically, belly fat, you need to understand hormones 101.
All exercise is stress. Stress releases cortisol. The intensity and duration of your exercise selection will have a pivotal effect on the hormones released during and after exercise. They’ll either hurt or help your fitness and fatness.
Stacking the Deck Against You
Unregulated, your already-elevated higher cortisol levels leave you with more inflammation and more muscle and connective tissue breakdown. Doing the wrong exercise at the wrong time has the potential to get you the opposite of everything you want.
Your exercise has to combat excess cortisol to help you build lean tissue and increase energy expenditure. Continuous, steady-state exercise results in about a 150% increase in cortisol secretion during exercise. Not only can that halt weight loss, but it can also make you feel more exhausted and result in more belly fat deposits.
You want to avoid that longer duration moderate exercise you’ve been conditioned for years to do.
Where to Start
Your first step is to restore your energy and rebalance your cortisol levels. You can test cortisol levels, but you may not need to do so. Your body never lies. So, I suggest that even if my clients do lab tests, they test with their body’s messaging too.
Signs your cortisol is imbalanced:
- Belly fat
- Sluggish upon waking
- Energy crashes mid-morning or afternoon
- Lack of or out-of-control appetite
- Heavy reliance on coffee to rev up and wine to relax
If you have two or more of those, your first step to losing weight, specifically fat weight, is to “restore before more.” Until you do, if you’re trying to exercise away that weight, it’s like writing checks on an empty account.
Want to learn more: watch my TEDx talk, Everything Women Learned About Exercise May Be a Lie.
If you’re also dieting, which robs you of much-needed micronutrients, you’re increasing stress further. You essentially have one foot on the accelerator and one on the brake. How well does that work?
When your body is confused by being told to go slow (dieting) and to go fast (exercise), it reacts to protect you. Your metabolism slows as your body attempts to preserve energy and store fat for the rainy day it perceives is coming.
The Moderate Exercise Solution
The good news is there’s an answer. It won’t feel comfortable. It might, however, be a relief. You’ll have to give up that old dogma: more is better. Since longer sessions of moderate exercise, that “steady-state” you learned decades ago, actually increases cortisol with less positive post-exercise cortisol reduction, end it now.
The answer is to exercise less. Do it at the right time and with the right intensity. The question to ask is whether or not your exercise has a positive or negative effect on your stress. When you’re restored and have the energy to enjoy exercise, it’s time to start smarter.
Do short sessions of High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and short full-body strength training sessions where you reach muscular fatigue to provide exercise stimulus to offset the adverse effects of stress.
Low-to-moderate intensity exercise of various durations can fill out your exercise week. The caveat? Enjoy it. Focus less on the number of calories you’re burning than the number of smiles during the movement.
Want to Learn More:
Borer, K. (2003) Exercise Endocrinology Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics