Whatever the effects of the shifting hormones of mid-life, whether it's fighting the fat gravitating towards your abdomen, hot flashes, anxiety, depression, declining energy, poor sleep, declining self-esteem, or problems with memory and concentration, exercise can help! A little bit of walking, toning and stretching goes a long way toward improving the overall quality of your life, especially when hormones start to go haywire. Other studies have proven the effectiveness of exercise for stabilizing mood disturbances and insomnia as well as reducing the physical stress response.
Because of the interconnected nature of the muscular system, brain, and other processes of the body, being sedentary depresses your mood, your thinking, and your ability to work productively. But moderate regular exercise can create a change in that biochemistry, launching you into a state of confidence and exhilaration and boosting your energy, moods, and alertness. There's strong evidence that moderate exercise whether it be a brisk walk or a 45-minute strength workout triggers the release of the "pleasure chemicals" known as endorphins. In addition, working up a good sweat activates the "feel good" neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, which reduce the intensity of just about every perimenopausal symptom. It can tame even the worst case of PMS!
Regular aerobic exercise, like walking, also increases your circulation, which helps to minimize bloating and fluid retention. It definitely impacts hot flashes, possibly due to its impact on circulation ad cooling, possibly due to the accompanying endorphin release. Exercise also decreases your appetite and gives you a healthy outlet for stress. It douses the emotional fires behind overeating. Even with positive eating patterns, the mid-life body is apt to lay down bigger and better fat cells, right through the abdominal area, hence the typical change in body shape and, if a woman has been thin for many years, her mid-section fat cells are apt to be very, very hungry!
Thankfully, this weight shift can be turned around with focused exercise due to the impact it has on muscle mass. When you start using muscle during exercise rather than losing it to mid-life, you release your fat-burning potential. Strong muscles are a lot like the Energizer Bunny: they just keep going and going, activating your metabolism and revving up the body's calorie burning ability -- even while you sleep!
In addition, your muscles are loaded with insulin receptors. The more muscle mass you have and the more heat you generate from your muscles on a regular basis, the more efficiently you'll use insulin and burn body fat overriding the message to "store, store, store"! We know that what most influences weight gain in mid-life is not hormonal status alone, but the loss of muscle mass and the accompanying decrease in metabolism. Exercise, specifically strength training, reverses the reduction in metabolic rate while simultaneously increasing muscle mass. Furthermore, research shows that you can accomplish this goal at any age.
Weight-bearing exercise like walking or weight lifting also promotes bone growth which is a big plus in the mid-life battle against osteoporosis. And if you build up to walking at a brisk clip (4 mph), you may encourage your body to secrete more growth hormone, which both strengthens bones and increases lean body mass.
I recommend 30 minutes of moderate activity, such as brisk walking or bicycling, at least five times a week for fitness and hormone balance. Or, 45 to 60 minutes of moderate activity at least five times a week for weight loss and increased muscle mass. When exercising aerobically, you should be breathing deeply but comfortably enough that you could hold a conversation or sing to yourself. And I recommend conditioning and strength training.
A conditioning or resistance workout usually involves various exercises that focus on different muscle groups. Any kind of repetitive resistance training is effective, whether it's circuit training on weight machines, an arm workout with 3 to 5 pound free weights or full soup cans, calisthenics such as chin-ups, push-ups, and sit-ups, or arm and leg extensions with exercise bands. Just doing a few simple ten-to fifteen minute strength-training routines at home or at the gym, two times a week, can turn the tide on muscle loss and activate your metabolism.
As you are establishing a routine of exercise, keep your focus on how good you'll feel after you exercise. Remind yourself of the long-term benefits you're getting: better energy, a better body, and better health. Choosing to exercise daily is giving a precious gift to yourself.
Pamela Smith, RD, nutritionist and wellness coach, is the author of "Take Charge of the Change" (Zondervan/Harper Collins, 2003), a complete wellness plan for women with natural solutions for hormonal havoc. Her daily "Tips for Living Well" may be heard on over 800 radio stations nationwide and on her website, www.pamsmith.com.