With the menopause affecting your mind as much as your body, moving is more vital than ever, says PT and menopause coach Jane Dowling
I would like to share a secret with you from both my personal and clinical experience: cardiovascular and weight bearing exercise during menopause will not only help your body, but also your mind.
When you hit menopause not only do you have the physical changes to deal with, but the psychological changes. These symptoms vary from woman to woman, some suffer more than others - and of course I was one of the unlucky ones as I suffered with all of them. Brain fog, forgetfulness, low mood, anxiety and just generally not thinking straight can have a very big impact (when I experienced it I liked to refer to myself as Bonkers).
Any normality you thought you may have in your forward-thinking brain seems to disappear and in creeps self doubt, which can contribute to our anxiety. However, with every problem there is a solution, and there’s plenty you can do - simply by getting moving.
The mental health symptoms of menopause
Depression and anxiety: The unfortunate thing is that most GPs do not understand that depression and anxiety are a common symptom of menopause , and prescribe antidepressants. However this is treating the symptom not the cause, which is the drop in oestrogen levels due to menopause. HRT can help with the feelings of depression and anxiety as it will put back the oestrogen lost. Some women, through personal choice or medical reasons, will not go down the HRT route. However, whichever path you take, exercise is a must at this point in your life, to keep your mind happy and clear and to fight off depression.
Forgetfulness and memory loss: Many women think they have the early onset of dementia during menopause such is their forgetfulness, so my top tip is to write everything down or record things. When I am in meetings I ask if I can voice record it because of my memory - I obviously ask first and explain why (luckily most of my meetings are menopause related so sympathy is there). Asking this question in itself can set off anxiety which can start a vicious cycle. I joke about it now, however, I have not always been this confident in my management on menopause symptoms. Managing it this way takes away my anxiety and that is my coping mechanism.
How exercise can help
Research proves that having a fitter body will directly link to positive mental health, therefore helping with our self-confidence, mood, self-esteem and a sharper brain.
It boosts endorphins: Working out is a natural anti-anxiety and anti-stress treatment. It reduces tension and stress, boosts mental energy and has a positive effect on your physical and mental health because it releases our feel-good hormones, endorphins. These are our ‘happy chemicals’ that off-set the stress hormone cortisol, which is higher during menopause. Therefore, doing exercise that increases the heart rate will boost mental energy and physical health, leaving you feeling not only happier but more confident and a lot less stressed. That is the scientific bit, but from a personal perspective I know this works. If I don’t exercise I feel like my nerves are on the surface - you know the feeling where it’s as if you have barbed wired under your skin!? Exercising, for me, takes that feeling away, it really does (just ask my husband and the rest of my family).
Promotes better sleep: Exercising during the day will fatigue your body and will promote better sleep and regulate your sleep pattern in a positive way. It’s hard when you’re tired to think about doing any form of exercise though - it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario. My tip is to start slowly, do something that you enjoy and slowly increase the intensity. If you are in the throes of menopause then you know sleep is a luxury so anything you can do to improve this is a must.
Easy exercises to get you started*
There are 100s of ways to increase your heart rate but here are a few that will be great for your mental health.
Walking - You can, of course, get on a treadmill in a gym. However, exercising outside will boost your feel-good receptors. Studies show that exercising outside compared to inside will help lift your mood – obviously this is weather dependent!
Try going for a walk with a friend too; this way you can perhaps grab a cuppa afterwards, which is always good for the soul. It is also a good way to motivate each other when one is feeling low and less likely to actually get out and do it.
Dancing – Try a dance class or just put on your favourite music and have a bop. On our closed Facebook group recently, while working late at my studio, I put on some music and pranced around and encouraged members to join me. My choice of music was Donna Summer’s ‘No More Tears”. We all smiled, had a laugh and exercised - so job done!
Water based exercise – I love swimming and it is a great workout that will help you get toned all over (however remember this is not bone loading so you should do something else alongside this). Aqua aerobics is a great form of exercise - it’s performed to music, instructor led and is kinder to your body if you have any injuries. It is also usually “age appropriate” i.e. other menopausal women in the class, therefore you will not be surrounded by young, Lycra-clad women!
Racket sports – As with walking this is great to do with a friend, and as well as helping to prevent osteoporosis in your dominant batting side (osteoporosis prevention is a passion of mine!). What’s more, working out with another person will have a positive effect on your mental health. If you cannot persuade someone to join you, many leisure centres hold badminton and racket clubs where you can just turn up and find a partner, so not only will you improve your fitness but you will make new friends!
Restorative yoga – This type of yoga is wonderful for calming anxiety as it helps with relaxation; since starting a few months ago I can now downward dog as good as the next person! More dynamic forms of yoga are great for strength and heart rate elevation but if you can find a good restorative class you will feel calmer and better able to sleep.
Joining a gym – This can be costly, however there are so many ‘budget’ gyms now ranging from around £17 - £30 per month. These gyms do have a place in the fitness arena, however the help or support that you receive isn’t like having a personal trainer. If you join a gym, make sure you are confident with what you are doing. If you can, go with a friend to help with motivation. Remember even though these gyms are budget, if you don’t use your membership it is money down the drain!
My advice is to ask for a couple of days’ free trial, test going at different times of the day and check out the classes. Ask if a fitness advisor will devise a programme for you, as you need to feel confident and happy - remember everyone needs to start somewhere.
I have had clients come to me via a GP referral service for exercise programmes and most would feel nervous - everyone feels like that when entering a gym for the first time. Ease yourself in slowly if you have never been before.
Good luck with your new fitness regime. Your new mantra is ‘strong body, strong mind’.
Jane Dowling is a clinical exercise practitioner with over 22 years in the industry, and is the owner of a successful studio in London Bridge. She has a website that supports women through menopause and a private Facebook group where women exchange stories. Follow her on Instagram for free training and food advice @menoandme. Jane also offers training and support through Skype.
*When taking part in any new activity that will challenge your body, please make sure you get the ok from your GP or physician.