Exercise after Menopause

There are four facts about exercise after menopause that are intertwined.  When taken together they create a downward spiral that robs women of health as they age.  Fighting against them takes daily awareness and daily effort.  I knew the facts.  I have even blogged about them.  But I let down my guard, and lost some ground that I’m now working diligently to regain.

  1. Hormone changes that come with menopause cause a loss of muscle mass of 1-2 % per year.
  2. The same hormone changes make it much harder to build new muscle.
  3. Metabolism also begins to drop. By age 50, metabolism is down 10 – 15 % from what it was at age 30.  Loss of muscle contributes to a decrease in metabolism and decrease in metabolism contributes to loss of muscle.
  4. When you are at rest, muscle burns more calories than fat.

If a healthy active woman continues to eat the same food and exercise in the same way after menopause she will gain weight and add fat.

I see all of these principles at work in myself.

It is so disconcerting to watch the muscle I have go soft.  It affects my appearance.  My legs and arms don’t have the muscle definition they did.  It affects my joints.  For example several years ago I had patella femoral pain.  I did physical therapy exercises on my quads and made a complete recovery.  I thought I was finished with patella femoral forever.  But muscle loss has allowed the knee pain to return.  The recovery this time is slower.  Muscle loss also affects my endurance.  It keeps me from exercising with the intensity that I did before menopause.

I can remember in my 20s, 30s, and 40s when I would let my exercise lapse.  I would get convicted, start exercising again and see almost immediate results.  That is no longer true.  I work diligently, but improving muscle tone and strength is painfully slow.

Women after menopause also find that injuries are more frequent.  When I push too hard to try and make up for lost ground, I strain a muscle or a nerve.  I recently learned that hormone changes can cause dehydration and brittleness in ligaments and tendons.  Tendonitis becomes more likely.  I knew my skin needed hydration, but I had no idea the same was true of connective tissue.  How do I hydrate tissues inside my body that I can’t see?

I have not compromised on eating or exercise, yet I have gained weight – not good weight, but fat.  Most frustrating – and I suspect related to my cholesterol readings – I have added fat around my middle.  I recoil against the words “belly fat” in advertisements.  But suddenly I have it.  My body type, when I was younger, always collected fat in my legs and thighs.  I would never look like a fashion model, but I learned to live with it.  I could compensate by buying clothes that emphasized my small waist and flat tummy.  Now I look in the mirror and see soft fatty tissue over my belly.  I read that belly fat is related to cholesterol.  For me, it certainly seems to be true.

You can see the spiral.  A healthy active woman goes through menopause and starts to lose muscle mass.  She doesn’t build muscle as fast, and her metabolism slows down.  She keeps eating and exercising in the same healthy way, thinking that all is well.  She is frustrated when the scale starts to creep up.  The frustration increases when she sees fat where it didn’t used to be.  Fat burns fewer calories than muscle, and the extra calories become more fat.  The spiral goes down another level.

I know what I have to do.  Type Os need intense physical exercise for general health and to control cholesterol.  Women need weight bearing exercise to maintain bones.  Women need resistance training to build muscle.  I need all three, but I mustn’t become impatient or I will injure myself.  I have to be disciplined and work at it steadily every day.

In addition to Dr. D’s guidelines, I have recently read these general tips about reversing muscle loss.

  • Protein is the most valuable food for repairing and building muscle fibers.
  • Low blood levels of vitamin D are associated with lower muscle strength
  • Initial exercises should be aimed at strengthening the core.
  • After a workout, your body needs to regenerate itself.  That mostly happens while you sleep, so aim for seven to nine hours each night

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