Menopause is a natural process that happens to all women. It’s the time when your ovaries stop producing estrogen. Menopause can begin as early as age 45 and as late as age 55, and sometimes later. During menopause, your ovaries produce less estrogen (a hormone), which causes changes in your body (such as hot flashes). These changes make it harder for you to maintain a healthy weight and exercise regularly.
The changes that come with menopause can be a tough pill to swallow but staying physically active is one of the smartest things you can do to maintain a more youthful body composition and stay healthy as you age. Let’s look at some ways menopause can affect your body composition and how it can affect your workouts.
You May Experience More Inflammation with Age
One change that occurs after menopause is a rise in low-grade inflammation. With inflammation, the body’s immune system responds to an injury or infection by sending white blood cells to the area. These cells can cause swelling and redness in joints, muscles, and lungs. Low-grade, whole-body inflammation is more subtle, but it can cause tissue damage at a lower level and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
Research shows inflammation increases after menopause and it coincides with a decline in estrogen. As scientists point out, one form of estrogen, called estradiol, protects against inflammation, so a deficiency can cause an inflammatory surge that jeopardizes health.
The good news? Exercise, in moderation, helps reduce inflammation. Another way to lower inflammation after menopause is to change your diet. Skip the ultra-processed foods and opt for foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids like flaxseed or chia seeds; fish such as salmon; avocados; nuts; dark leafy greens like spinach or kale. Omega-3s have anti-inflammatory activity and when you put spices, like turmeric and rosemary, on these foods you get antioxidants that fight inflammation too.
Muscle and Bone Loss Accelerates
The best way to offset the loss of muscle mass is through strength training. You know that regular strength training can help you increase muscle strength and build metabolically active muscle tissue to prevent frailty. Some people lighten up on the intensity of their lifts after menopause, but that’s not the best approach. Exercise is just as important after menopause as before, if not more so.
Research shows that the drop in estrogen that goes along with menopause leads to a decline in muscle stem cells, cells that donate their nuclei to promote muscle growth. Since you have less estrogen to support muscle growth and few stem cells, you may need to push your muscles during a workout a little harder to build strength and muscle size. Rather than lifting at 60% or 70% of your one-rep max every time you train, use a heavier resistance, around 80 to 90% of one-rep max for some sets. Following a program of progressive resistance exercise will help preserve your muscles as you age.
You also need progressive strength training to maintain bone mass. Bone loss is a major concern for women, especially small-boned or thin women. High-intensity lifting helps preserve bone density by stimulating cells called osteoblasts that lay down new bone.
Muscles May Recover More Slowly
What do your muscles need after an intense workout? They need rest and recovery time. After menopause, your muscles may recover more slowly Why? Estrogen seems to reduce the amount of muscle damage you get when you strength train or do high-intensity exercise. As your estrogen level drops, your muscles may sustain more damage during a workout, meaning they require more recovery time between workouts. For example, if you’re lifting heavy, give that muscle group three days of rest rather than two before working it again.
Pelvic Floor Issues Become More Common
The pelvic floor muscles are a group of muscles that support your pelvic organs. When these muscles weaken or tighten too much after menopause, you could experience stress incontinence, leakage of a small amount of urine when you cough or sneeze. Even worse, you could experience more serious consequences such as a prolapse. One way to reduce the risk of pelvic floor issues is to do Kegel exercises where you contract and relax the muscles in your pelvic floor. You can find instructions on how to do this online. It’s important to focus on strengthening your pelvic floor muscles after menopause too.
You May Experience Achy Joints
You could have more joint aches and stiffness after menopause. One reason is symptomatic osteoarthritis becomes more common after mid-life and the drop in estrogen may worsen it but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stay active. If you have achy knees after a workout, lighten up for a few days and focus on low-impact cardio rather than exercises that involve running or jumping. Hydrate to keep your joints lubricated and eat more anti-inflammatory foods.
Visceral Fat Increases
You may notice your waist size increases due to a rise in visceral fat. It’s not clear why this occurs, but the drop in estrogen production can lead to a dominance of testosterone. Higher levels of androgens, like testosterone, are linked with greater visceral fat. Plus, cortisol, the stress hormone, goes up after menopause and it contributes to fat redistribution from areas like the hips and thighs to deeper visceral fat. Visceral fat is the riskiest type from a health standpoint, as it’s associated with cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes.
You May Need to Dress a Little Lighter
If you have hot flashes after menopause, as many women do, it’s helpful to dress lighter during exercise. The extra heat your body generates after menopause can make a workout feel harder and you’ll also sweat more profusely during a workout. That can quickly zap your motivation. The good news is regular exercise may based on some research, reduce the severity of hot flashes. One study found that menopausal women who stayed physically active cut their hot flashes in half. Dress in layers, so you can remove a layer if you get too warm
The Bottom Line
Menopause brings changes but exercise and good nutrition can help you avoid some of the negative aspects and maintain a healthy body composition.
- “Study Find Links Between Inflammation, Menopause, and Depressive ….” 14 Dec. 2020, https://neurosciencenews.com/inflammation-menopause-depression-17430/.
- “Inflammatory Menopause, What is It? – Biomedical News & Health Blog.” 17 Mar. 2021, https://biomedj.org/diseases-conditions/inflammatory-menopause-what-is-it/.
- “Inflammation and Menopause | Metagenics Institute.” https://www.metagenicsinstitute.com/blogs/inflammation-menopause-cardiovascular-outcomes-spms/.
- Maltais ML, Desroches J, Dionne IJ. Changes in muscle mass and strength after menopause. J Musculoskelet Neuronal Interact. 2009 Oct-Dec;9(4):186-97. PMID: 19949277.
- “Menopause, Metabolism, and Visceral Fat Accumulation.” 27 Jul. 2016, https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/ob-gyn/ur-medicine-menopause-and-womens-health/menopause-blog/july-2016/menopause-metabolism-and-visceral-fat-accumulation.aspx.
- ACTA Obstetrics and Gynecology Scandinavia “Does Physical Exercise Influence the Frequency of Postmenopausal Hot Flushes?” Mats Hammar, et al.; 2011.