Opinion

Managing Strength Training Through Menopause

Some bodily changes are inevitable. How can you manage your strength through the process?

“We don’t quit playing because we age, we age because we quit playing.” – George Bernard Shaw

A beautiful quote indeed, but tell that to a woman going through perimenopause or menopause, and she might tell you to F off. 

The constant hot flashes that make her feel like she’s on fire inside, the unexplained fatigue, the low sex drive, not to mention the dry vagina that leaks urine every time she coughs or sneezes, doesn’t exactly make her feel like she wants to continue to play, let alone train hard at the gym.

Too much information?

No, not too much information, because it’s time we talk about menopause, so we can talk about solutions to help make this time a little less aggressive. 

[Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. It’s always best to talk to a medical professional before undertaking any new diet or training regimen, especially if you have a preexisting condition.]

Let’s start with 43-year-old Heather Crippen, the owner of CrossFit 403 in Airdrie, Alberta, who isn’t scared to start the dialogue. 

“It’s not something women talk about, and honestly there are very little services out there for women,” Crippen said.

Crippen has been going through menopause for five years and counting, and has been having crazy hot flashes that cause her to drip sweat all day long and sleep terribly at night. Her emotions have been all over the map and at times her anxiety has been crippling.

“I started (going through menopause) at around 35, and by 40 I was fully into menopause,” she said. “I visited doctors and had check-ups every year. When I would tell them my cycle was all over (the place) or non-existent, they all brushed me off telling me I was too young. I felt like I was going crazy and dealing with super highs and bad lows in emotion. Frankly, my husband needs an award.”

Metal dumbbells

She added: “With the added stress of owning a business, kids, and handling relationships at the gym, I was in a huge spiral down with no help, and I was going crazy…I was really at the end of the end of the line and my anxiety was so bad.”

More recently, Crippen started taking hormone replacement therapy, which has helped her manage her emotions and allergic reactions to a degree, she explained, but hormone therapy has also caused her to gain weight, which has made her insecure.

“Especially in this industry,” she said of being a CrossFit coach.

Beyond Physical Changes with Krista Scott-Dixon

Krista Scott-Dixon is a Precision Nutrition Level 2 coach who works with mostly midlife-aged women. She is also the author of What’s happening to my body!?’ 6 lifestyle strategies to feel your best during menopause, a comprehensive article published in Precision Nutrition.

On a general level, Scott-Dixon is hesitant to give rigid guidelines about what menopausal women “should and shouldn’t do,” she said, “because women at midlife are so different.”

That being said, she has learned through working with her clients that it’s also important to uncover and work through the mental and emotional challenges women are going through during menopause. Doing this allows her to take a more holistic approach with her clients. 

“I had a midlife client just tell me that she’s grieving the loss of the ideal family she had hoped to raise,” Scott-Dixon said of an example of the overwhelming stress or sense of loss women feel at this time. 

“Women at midlife are already drowning in shoulds because typically they are pulled by lots of obligations—work, family, caregiving if they have children or aging parents, shifting roles, identity changes, and life’s general shenanigans,” she said. 

Scott-Dixon added: “I think that’s important to emphasize because the anti-aging industry tries to sell a magic pill. ‘If you only eat diet X, or do exercise Y, or take supplement Z, then you’ll sail through aging. So then women feel like crap because they aren’t J.Lo.”

Though everyone is different, Scott-Dixon urges menopausal women to keep working out. And specifically, to pay close attention to what their bodies are telling them when they do.

While too much workout intensity during this time can make symptoms worse, Scott-Dixon said, it you’re in tune with your body and you exercise in a way that feels good, “it can certainly help with many symptoms of menopause, such as changes in mood and losing muscle mass,” she said. 

Her overall advice to menopausal: “Do any exercise you can. Do what you enjoy and will do consistently. Ideally, that involves resistance training two to three times a week, if possible. But think beyond exercise to movement, and just try to move as much as you can. Move in ways that are fulfilling and soul-nourishing, that make you feel strong, happy and calm.”

Though there’s no magic answer to stop your body from changing, here are four more training tips to keep your body strong and fit:

1. Keep training for mental health

The first tip is simply to find a way to get to the gym and keep training (1). There’s a boatload of evidence that that working out helps reduce anxiety (2) and depression (3). This has been the case for some of Scott-Dixn’s clients and it has been the case for Crippen.

“Training helps keep my head somewhat level,” said Crippen, adding that she does less conditioning and more strength-based workouts now than before.

So get to the gym and do what you can, and be kind to yourself if you don’t feel like pushing as hard as you would like to.

2. Lift weights for bone density

A side effect of getting older is a decrease in bone density, and the best way of training to maintain or improve bone density is through strength training.

This doesn’t mean you need to be lifting to your max strength. Lifting heavy is relative to your abilities. If you haven’t lifted before, it’s not too late to start. Hiring a coach to steer you appropriately is often the best place to begin.

3. Strength training to reduce sarcopenia

Sarcopenia is muscle loss due to age (4), something that starts accelerating for most women once they hit menopause.

If you continue to strength train, however, you may be able to mitigate much of this strength loss and even build more lean muscle mass. 

Maintaining this muscle mass isn’t just important for strength. Your muscles also take up blood glucose, effectively helping you avoid the effects of a decrease in insulin sensitivity. This, of course, helps promote a healthy body weight (5).

4. Pelvic floor strength to stop the leakage

One of estrogen’s roles is to help with bladder function (6), specifically holding and releasing urine.

Changes in estrogen levels during menopause, therefore, have an impact on the pelvic floor and leave women susceptible to leaking urine, a common symptom during menopause. Some women experience leakage when they workout, even when they’re not menopausal, and that’s totally normal, too.

Hence, it’s important to keep your pelvic floor strong and stable (7), so you can engage the right muscles and control contractions, effectively reducing unwanted leakage.

One route you can go is to start working with a pelvic floor physiotherapist; however, your pelvic floor will also benefit from movements like squats and deadlifts, and even glute bridges and deadbugs, especially if you’re bracing hard and keeping tension throughout your body.

Final Thoughts

Though midlife is a challenge for many women, Scott-Dixon explained there is much to be hopeful and grateful for. It’s certainly better to go through menopause now than in the 1960s, or even 1980s, she explained, when the attitude used to be just slow down and let yourself get old.

“You have now have 61-year-old Madonna cranking through boy toys, or people over 50 remaining competitive in sport,” she said, adding, “Midlife women can have bigger and better aspirations for their health, fitness and fulfillment than in previous generations.”

She added: “Many women find that once the hormonal storms settle, the other side is pretty great. So, the tail end of menopause often starts to become a new phase of growth, exploration, and fulfillment. If women can allow themselves to surf the changes of aging, they tend to do very well. It’s when women struggle to stay young that they tend to suffer.”

References

1. Nalini Mishra et al. Exercise beyond menopause: Dos and Don’ts. Journal Midlife Health. 2011.
2. James A. Blumenthal et al. Exercise and Pharmacotherapy in the Treatment of Major Depressive Disorder. Psychosom Med. 2007.
3. Mayo Clinic Staff. Depression and anxiety: Exercise eases symptoms. Mayo Clinic. 2017.
4. Eija K. Laakkonen et al. Estrogenic regulation of skeletal muscle proteome: a study of premenopausal women and postmenopausal MZ cotwins discordant for hormonal therapy. Aging Cell. 2017.
5. The Endocrine Society. Increased muscle mass may lower risk of pre-diabetes: Study shows building muscle can lower person’s risk of insulin resistance. ScienceDaily. 2011.
6. D. Robinson et al. The effect of hormones on the lower urinary tract. Menopause International. 2013.
7. Continence Foundation of Australia. How can I find my pelvic floor muscles? Pelvic Floor First. 2016.