By Michelle Kennedy, M.S., Best Life fitness expert
Hot flashes, night sweats, weight gain, an increased risk for osteoporosis and heart disease—who said we get better with age? Fortunately, there's a single drug-free fix that can help alleviate all of these (and a bunch of other) symptoms caused by menopause and/or aging, and reduce your risk for illnesses: Exercise. Age gracefully—and healthfully—with regular workouts, which can help:
Bolster your bones. When it comes to your bones (and muscles, for that matter), it's a use-it-or-lose-it scenario. That means if you're inactive, your bones will diminish in size and strength. Not to mention, during menopause, the loss of estrogen puts your bones even more at risk. When you exercise, particularly weight-bearing activities, you stimulate the cells that are responsible for replenishing bone mass, reducing your risk for osteoporosis and fractures. Be sure to check with your doctor before starting any exercise program; if you already have osteoporosis, you may need to avoid certain exercises that jolt or put extra pressure on your back.
Boost your mood. Women going through menopause often report feeling anxious and irritable, and studies show that the risk for depression also increases. Exercise is a great way to counteract these changes because it causes the brain to release endorphins, feel-good hormones that produce a lift in your mood for several hours.
Regulate your temperature. You can once again blame hormones for one of the most dreaded and common menopause symptoms—hot flashes. The lower levels of hormones alter the part of the brain that controls temperature. Exercise can help because it causes an increase in estrogen levels, which coincides with a decrease in hot flashes. Some experts also suggest that the endorphins released after a workout improve a woman's perspective, making the hot flashes feel less severe than those who skip exercise.
Keep off extra pounds. Studies suggest that women can put on up to 15 pounds during and after menopause. It may be that menopausal and post-menopausal women don't exercise as much as younger women. It could also be that as we age, our metabolism slows. Exercise is an obvious solution because it can help rev metabolism and ward off the weight gain.
Sleep more soundly. Menopausal and post-menopausal women complain that their sleep is disturbed, often because of other problems, such as apnea, anxiety and hot flashes. Again, physical activity increases the concentration of feel-good hormones, so people experience less anxiety. Exercise also reduces stress by dissipating lactic acid that accumulates in the blood, easing muscular tension, bolstering the nervous system, and increasing the release of epinephrine, the hormone that creates a sense of happiness and well-being. And most importantly, exercise improves sleep because it is a physical stress to the body; the brain compensates for this stress by increasing deep sleep.
Protect your joints. Cartilage, the protective tissue between bones, wears down over time, so after years of pressure and pounding, it degenerates. The result: There's less cushion and the bones tend to rub against each other, which can cause joint pain. Stretching helps improve flexibility; increased flexibility relieves stiffness and increases the joint's ability to function through its full range of motion. And the more mobile the joint is, the lower the risk for injury. Strength training, which makes the muscles and tendons surrounding the joint stronger, can also help because they absorb some of the shock and pressure of movement that the joints would otherwise bear.