Although the average age for the menopause to start in the UK is 511, this age isn’t set in stone. Perimenopause and menopause occurs for most women between the ages of 45 and 552, however it can begin before the age of 42 which is known as early menopause.
The menopause is defined as when there has been an absence of periods for 12 months, after this timeframe a woman is considered post-menopausal for the rest of her life. The process differs from person-to-person, some will have more noticeable symptoms than others and what treatment works for one woman might not work for another.
Physiologist Taylor Clark explores how exercise can be used to help minimise the impact of some of the symptoms caused by the perimenopause and menopause.
Common menopause symptoms
The symptoms of menopause can differ for each person, and some women may not experience any at all, however the physical symptoms often include:
- Hot flushes
- Difficulty sleeping, which may be a result of night sweats
- Headaches and/or migraines that are worse than usual
- Muscle aches and joint pains
- Changed body shape and weight gain
- Skin changes including dry and itchy skin
- Reduced sex drive
- Vaginal dryness and pain, itching or discomfort during sex
- Recurrent urinary tract infections (UTIs)
Alongside this, many women often speak about their psychological symptoms of menopause, these often include:
- Sudden changes in mood
- Low mood and anxiety
- Problems with memory (often referred to as ‘brain fog’)
Can exercise help?
While the process of menopause for most women is unavoidable there has been extensive research to look at what can be done to help reduce the symptoms.
A Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN) showed that menopausal symptoms were more frequent among less active women, finding a correlation between reduced activity and increasing symptoms3.
A second study took a sample group of sedentary women who were experiencing menopausal symptoms. The participants were asked to partake in an aerobic training programme for 6 months, comprising of sub-maximal activity such as walking, jogging and light swimming.
Results showed those who participated in the training programme for the full 6 months reported decreased menopausal symptoms, including reduced night sweats, mood swings and irritability.4
While the relationship between menopause symptoms and exercise is still unclear the research suggests the benefits of exercise can counteract the most common symptoms of menopause.
Low levels of female participation in sport and exercise is an issue worldwide. In the UK nearly 1 in 2 (42%) of women are not active enough for good health5. In addition to this, women’s activity levels tend to decrease with age, meaning most menopausal women are not as active as they should be.
Read more > Keeping active as we age
What is clear, is menopause should not be a reason to be inactive. If you are experiencing negative symptoms of the menopause, exercise may just be the least invasive and most beneficial prescription you can give to yourself.
Menopause and bone density
During the process of the perimenopause and menopause the female body can go through some large changes, some that may go unnoticed. This can cause an individual to be more vulnerable to different risk factors and health issues.
One risk factor that particularly increases post-menopause is osteoporosis. Osteoporosis occurs when bone density decreases to a point when the bones become susceptible to breaks from falls or low impact force.
It is estimated in the UK there are 3.5 million people over the age of 50 affected by it, with one in two women breaking at least one bone after the age of 506. Through menopause, oestrogen levels drop which is an important hormone in the production and retention of bone marrow. As the levels drop, the likelihood therefore of developing osteoporosis increases.
Osteoporosis does not need to be an inevitable consequence of the menopause and there are many precautions a women can take to reduce her risk. Bone mass tends to peak around the age of 30, however the level of bone density can look different from person to person.
The rate of bone loss after this age tends to follow a consistent path, with a steeper curve for women post-menopause. Because of this, the greater level of bone density a woman has at her peak, the greater level of protection she will have as she ages.7
How do you increase bone density?
There are a few different methods, including HRT and dietary changes, however one often overlooked method is resistance training.
Many people believe that once you stop growing your bones stay the same size. However, this is not true as the thickness of your bones can continue to grow way past the age an individual reaches their maximum height.
Much like muscles, your bones will change in strength depending on their demand, you will often see astronauts come back from space in wheelchairs due to muscle and bone wastage. This is also true for hospital patients who have been unable to move freely for extensive periods of time. This is because their bones have not been put under any stress, causing their body to reduce its bone marrow production.
On the other hand, athletes who put higher levels of pressure on their skeletal system, such as weightlifters and those who go hiking, have noticeably higher bone densities.
There are many ways to increase the stress you put on your bones, however the most common is through weight-bearing activities.
These activities force you to work against gravity, they include:
- Walking or hiking,
- racket sports,
- ball sports,
- dancing and many more8.
In addition to this, exercise such as weight training or plyometric training (exercising that boosts power, speed, and agility by jumping, throwing, and running) tend to exsert higher amounts of stress, leading to greater bone health.
The Royal Osteoporosis Society advises for most people with osteoporosis to undertake “about 50 moderate impacts on most days (jumps, skips, jogs, hops etc.)” and to “aim for 20-30 minutes of muscle-resistance exercise, working on exercises that target legs, arms and spine” on 2-3 days non-consecutive of the week.9
If you are post-menopausal, or if you have suffered a fracture after a minor fall, it's always a good idea to talk to your GP before undertaking any physical activity.
Discover more about the symptoms, treatments and some common myths surrounding the menopause in our women’s health section.
- What is Perimenopause - The Meyer Menopause Clinics
- Menopause – NHS
- Relation of demographic and lifestyle factors to symptoms in a multiracial/ethnic population of women 40–55 years of age. – National Library of Medicine
- Effect of aerobic training on menopausal symptoms — a randomized controlled trial – National Library of Medicine
- Physical activity: applying All Our Health - GOV.UK
- Key Statistics per country - International Osteoporosis Foundation
- Let’s talk about bone health - The Menopause Charity
- Exercise for your bone health - NIH
- Exercise for osteoporosis and bone health - Royal Osteoporosis Society