It happens gradually: you wake up one day and notice a couple of extra pounds on the scale, or you zip up your favorite jeans only to realize that they've become a little snug, seemingly overnight. Are you imagining things? Probably not. As women enter menopause, the body experiences significant changes. Some, like loss of bone density, may not be outwardly obvious. But others, like weight gain or weight redistribution, can be hard to ignore. Even those women who have stayed fit their whole lives may suddenly find that their usual diet and exercise habits aren't yielding the same results in the face of lower metabolism, decreasing muscle mass, and waning estrogen levels, due to menopause.
The good news is that while you can't avoid the changes altogether, you can minimize them by incorporating a fitness plan that focuses heavily on strength training, core work, flexibility exercises, and low-impact cardio. The following four exercises will not only help address additional pounds and those trouble spots like the “menopause middle,” but they will also work to improve your overall health by increasing strength, slowing the loss of bone density and muscle mass, and improving balance and flexibility, all of which can help prevent injury during menopause and beyond.
Strength training is one of the most beneficial things you can do for your body not only during menopause, but also throughout your entire life. The more muscle you build, the stronger your bones and joints become, which can help with menopausal issues like osteoporosis or joint pain and stiffness. Not to mention that muscle burns more calories than fat, even when the body is at rest.
You don’t have to load up the squat rack with heavy weight, or bench press 100 pounds to achieve the benefits. You can reap the rewards from exercises during menopause that utilize your bodyweight, like squats, lunges, and pushups. One of our favorite types of exercises that provides the most benefits are compound exercises that work multiple major muscle groups at one time. Doing these types of exercises during menopause can help to get your heart rate up, and also force the muscles to work together, giving you better body control.
Squat Thrusters are an excellent example of this type of exercise, as they incorporate your quads, glutes, core, and delts. All you need is a pair of light dumbbells (think 3-5 pounds to start). And once you can comfortably perform 12 reps, you can try increasing the weight load, if desired.
To perform: Stand with your feet approximately hip-width apart and place your dumbbells on your shoulders, palms facing in. Begin by reaching back with your hips as though you are trying to lower yourself into a chair, keeping your chest lifted. Push through your heels to return to standing, as you press the weights overhead. Inhale as you lower, and exhale as you stand, keeping your belly pulled in and your head in a neutral, forward-facing position.
If you think of six-pack abs when you think of core strength, think again. Your core is so much more than simply your belly. It wraps around your body, encompassing every muscle that attaches to your spine and pelvis. It is responsible for your daily functional movement and keeping it strong helps to minimize the risk of injury. Bonus? Doing core exercises during menopause helps to build abdominal strength, which can help create the appearance of a flatter tummy. Vicki Demark, an online trainer and fitness coach, recommends Dead Bugs for creating core stability.
“In this exercise, the spine is completely supported by the ground, so there is no flexion,” she explains. “It can be modified up or down [for difficulty], and there are so many variations that it’s suitable for any fitness level.”
To perform: Lie on a mat with your back pressed firmly to the ground. Lift your arms straight up over your chest, reaching for the ceiling. Bring your knees up over your hips—not your waist. Extend your right arm back toward your right ear, while extending the left leg out. When you feel your back start to lift off the mat, return to the starting position and switch sides. Start with 8 reps on each side, and when you can keep your back fully pressed into the mat with your arm and leg extended, increase the reps or add light weights to the move.
If you can no longer touch your toes, or you suffer from lower back pain, you are not alone. With so much of our daily lives centering around a desk or computer, it's no wonder our posture, balance, and flexibility have begun to suffer. Taking time to add yoga or Pilates to your routine can help. Both practices require an awareness of the body and breath to help align you physically, and mentally. Try the tree pose for strengthening and balancing your body, mind, and spirit.
To perform: Begin by standing tall with your arms by your sides, shoulders back, chest up, and weight distributed evenly over both feet. Inhale and lift your right foot off the ground, placing it at your left ankle if you are a beginner, or above your knee if you are more advanced. Keep your hips squared and bring your hands together in a prayer pose at the center of your chest and hold for several breaths. Repeat on the opposite side.
Walk It Out
While cardio is an important part of the mix in maintaining your physical health during menopause, especially where your heart health is concerned, you don’t have to “go big or go home.” At this stage of the game, low-impact cardio is a better option for protecting joints and bones. Things like indoor cycling, swimming, and Zumba are all excellent options that don’t put a lot of wear and tear on the body. But according to DeMark, your best cardio doesn’t have to involve a gym membership or fancy equipment.
"Walking is one of the best ways for women to improve their overall health," she says, adding that benefits go beyond simply improving cardiovascular health to include disease management and prevention, weight maintenance, muscle strength, and endurance, improved sleep, and a stronger immune system to name a few. She suggests setting a daily step count goal of 5000-8000 on workout days and increasing that to 8000-10,000 on non-workout days. “A high daily step count yields high results.”
Fuel Your Body
Exercise is only half of the equation when it comes to managing our changing bodies during menopause. Nutrition is the other half. Think more protein, whole foods, and at least 1/2 your body weight in ounces of water daily; please note how much you hydrate can be impacted by the climate you're in and your physical activity levels. Also, do your best to limit alcohol consumption, processed foods, and sugar.
With a little strategy and dedication, it’s completely possible to enter your menopausal years and come out the other side looking and feeling your best.
**Disclaimer: If you have preexisting medical conditions or issues, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, orthopedic/neurological issues, we recommend checking in with your healthcare provider first before engaging in any of the above exercises.