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How Exercise Can Help with the Physiological Changes and Symptoms of Menopause (Part 1)

The changes to hormones in the body with the onset of menopause can lead to many physical symptoms and physiological changes. Today we'll be looking at these physiological alterations, including changes to body composition, insulin resistance, muscle mass, bone density, cardiovascular health, and cholesterol.

Your body shape

Several studies have shown that perimenopause, independent of age, is associated with an increased fat in the abdomen as well as a decrease in lean body mass. So, what this suggests is that menopause plays a role in that transition from more of a pear-shaped body (where the hips and thighs are wide and more weight is below the waist) to more of an apple-shaped body (where you have a wide waist with more weight above the waist). Other studies have shown that lower oestrogen not only increases appetite and food intake, it is also associated with changes in fat, mass, and fat distribution.

Your metabolism

A lack of oestrogen also has negative effects on your metabolism, which may reduce the rate in which your body actually burns calories and how effective it burns things such as starches and utilizing blood sugar.  The end result is an increase in fat storage. So, you may have heard of the hormone insulin. Insulin is a hormone that is produced in the pancreas and its role is to help regulate blood sugar levels. So, what then is insulin resistance? Insulin resistance means that the body's cells don't respond normally to insulin, meaning we cannot get sugar out of the blood as easily and is therefore harder to regulate blood sugar levels. The hormone oestrogen actually helps to control insulin resistance. It is known as an insulin sensitiser. As we know with menopause, oestrogen levels decrease. Lower oestrogen has actually been linked to insulin resistance, which is why post-menopausal women may gain weight particularly in their mid-section and therefore have an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Your muscles

As one begins to age, there is age-related loss in muscle mass, which can result in a decrease in muscle power too. This can be referred to as sarcopenia. The decrease in estrogen during menopause, in particular changes to oestrodiol, our skeletal muscles actually possess specific oestradiol receptors at the fiber level. So, oestradiol can actually promote muscle regeneration which can contribute to muscle health. The decrease in oestrogen acts directly and indirectly on muscles and it contributes to sarcopenia. We also see that with a decrease in muscle mass, there is an increase in intramuscular fat. Preventing sarcopenia and preserving muscle strength are highly relevant in order to prevent functional impairment. 

Your bones

Peak bone mass in females occurs approximately at the age of 30 and from here it begins to slowly decline, and begins to decline at a faster rate during menopause. Oestrogen plays an important role in maintaining bone strength. After menopause, oestrogen levels drop and this may result in an increase in bone loss. The average woman loses up to 10 percent of her bone mass in the first five years after menopause. This can lead to the progression of osteoporosis. There is also a decrease in calcium absorption from food which can impact bone density. Changes to bone can lead to an increase in fragility and fracture risk. Exercise and nutrition are used as a countermeasure to these changes.

Your heart

It has been observed that oestrogen helps to protect women against heart disease. During menopause as oestrogen levels drop, the level of fat in a woman's blood can increase. These changes put women at risk for developing heart and circulatory system disorders, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and heart disease. Menopause does not cause cardiovascular disease. However, certain risk factors do increase around the time of menopause and a high fat diet, smoking, or other unhealthy habits that begin early in life can also take a toll. Menopause can actually result in lipid profile changes with 10 to 15 percent higher lower density lipoproteins or LDL (bad cholesterol), and an increase in triglycerides (the circulating fat). We also see a decrease in HDL’s or higher density lipoproteins (the good cholesterols). Additionally, an increase in LDL’s can result in a build up of plaques in your artery wall, which we know can lead to other health risk factors.

Whilst you may be at an increased risk of some of these physiological alterations after menopause, not everyone will experience them. Luckily, the risk of these physiological changes can be prevented or even improved with lifestyle changes, including incorporating exercise into your routine. 

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this blog - coming soon!

If you have any questions regarding menopause and how exercise physiology can help you, don't hesitate to contact us here at Health in Balance.

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