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Female athletes and the Menopause

Menopause

When we reach Menopause, usually in our late 40s or early 50s many of our biological processes change and find a new “normal”. This changing process usually takes a few years and affects all women in different ways. Periods cease, of course, muscles will shrink and heart rate drops. Therefore, some of these changes will have an effect on our sports performance and usually slow us down but it’s not all bad news for female athletes. Research shows that the fitter you are to start with, the better your body and mind will be able to cope with these changes and adapt to the new you. It’s never too late to get active and people who exercise usually have a better quality (and length!) of life.

Here are a few examples of common changes to the female body and how staying active can help at this time of life:

Sleep quality

Many post-menopausal women report insomnia symptoms caused by a decline in estrogen and progesterone coupled with night sweats and the stress hormone cortisol. However, active people generally have better sleep patterns which helps muscle recovery and re-building. Exercise early in the day promotes better sleep. Keeping your bedroom cool and having a cold drink before bed can also help.

Aerobic capacity

Our cardiovascular system’s ability to convert oxygen to energy can drop between 5 and 9 percent each decade from our 30s. (This happens to men as well.) Much of this is because our heartbeat slows a little each year. That means oxygen-rich blood is being pumped to our working muscles less often. However, athletes of all ages have better aerobic capacity and blood volume than people who don’t exercise so the effect is less obvious.

Heat

During hot flushes or whenever the body begins to get too warm, blood rushes to the skin surface to off-load the heat. This is annoying for athletes, who’d prefer that the blood went to the muscles. In older adults of both sexes, sweating also begins later in a workout and our thirst mechanism dulls so dehydration is more likely. However, Hot flushes do go away for most women and keeping well hydrated is usually part of an athlete’s normal routine.

Diet and Fat storage

Older women aren’t as efficient at processing carbohydrates, so they tend to store the excess as fat around their bellies. This visceral fat is associated with higher risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. However, studies show that women who exercised four to five times a week have less total body fat than sedentary women of the same height and weight. And their visceral fat stores were similar to sedentary women a third their age. Eating more fruit and whole grains and less processed sugar can keep stomachs and blood sugar in check.

Bones

Estrogen works with calcium and vitamin D to strengthen bones. In the five to seven years after menopause, our bones can lose up to 20 percent of their density and sometimes this can lead to Osteoporosis. However, athletes start out with denser bones because of the weight-bearing activity they have done in the past and regular strength training along with a diet that includes fish and yoghurt can help maintain bone density in key areas such as hips and spine.

Muscles

Testosterone and other growth hormones decrease at Menopause along with Estrogen, so building and maintaining muscle is more difficult. Fat begins to marble the tissue, reducing its ability to generate power. However, exercise will help you keep muscle bulk and build more. Strength training, interval training and consuming protein within half an hour of hard exercise will help.

Mood

Fluctuating levels of Estrogen can make you irritable and miserable until your brain chemistry stabilizes after menopause. It can also make it harder to concentrate and remember things, and sleep problems make you tired. However, exercise is a known stress reliever and mood booster. Research has found that people who exercise are better able to deal with the ups and downs of aging.

If you would like to discuss how exercise, massage and self-care can help at this stage of your life please get in touch for an informal chat.