The menopause is a natural and gradual process, which in most cases happens as women reach their late 40s to early 50s.
The symptoms can be wide ranging and can vary in type and severity from person to person. Some women will not need any medical intervention as they go through the menopause, others might. However, it has been found that exercise, lifestyle and nutrition can have an impact on menopause symptoms.
If a personal trainer or fitness instructor is training a woman going through the menopause, they should devise a programme tailored to benefit her, taking account of any symptoms and the need to build bone density at this time.
What happens during the menopause?
As women age, their oestrogen levels decline (see our blog on Key Hormones: Oestrogen), their ovaries stop releasing eggs and they are no longer able to conceive naturally.
During the menopause, a woman’s periods will usually become less frequent and more intermittent before stopping altogether; in some cases they may stop suddenly.
Women may experience a range of symptoms (see below) and should also be aware of an increased risk of developing osteoporosis (see our blog on Osteoporosis) and/or stroke.
What age does this happen?
The average age in the UK is 51 and in most cases women reach the menopause between around 45 and 55. However, around 1% of women will experience premature menopause before the age of 40. This can have no clear reason, or can be triggered by a pre-existing medical condition, by surgery or by treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
How long does it last?
Usually only a few years, although symptoms can last up to 14 years, as they may start before the end of a woman’s periods and continue for a while afterwards.
What is the perimenopause?
This is the stage prior to the actual menopause, when a woman is still having periods but her body is preparing for the menopause. Contraception should still be used during this stage if you don’t want to get pregnant.
What symptoms are associated with the menopause?
The most commonly reported symptoms are hot flushes and night sweats, which occur when blood vessels are constricted or dilated, followed by increased blood flow. This can cause discomfort, interrupt sleep and have an effect on mood and energy levels.
Other common symptoms include:
- Anxiety, irritability, mood swings and depression
- Vaginal dryness and low libido
- Memory and concentration issues
- Urinary problems
- Bloating and weight gain
- Joint pain and fatigue
How can exercise, wellbeing and nutrition affect symptoms?
There are many natural ways to ease the symptoms of the menopause. These include diet, exercise and lifestyle changes. Hot flushes, for example, can be triggered by spicy foods, alcohol, coffee and smoking, as well as stressful situations, while urinary problems can be helped by pelvic floor exercises to strengthen the muscles.
Exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy weight is known to help manage symptoms of the menopause and have a positive effect on mental health (see our blogs on The Benefits of Exercise During the Menopause and Exercise and Mental Health). Ways of improving wellbeing can include:
- Going for a run
- Yoga (see our blog on Yoga and Mental Health)
- Practising mindfulness
- Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
Bones usually start to lose their density in the run up to the menopause and this continues afterwards. Ways to counter the increased risk of developing osteoporosis include:
- Exercise, in particular weight-bearing exercise
- Following a diet high in calcium
- Taking calcium supplements
- Taking vitamin D supplements
Do you need to see your GP?
If your symptoms are causing particular concern, it’s worth visiting your GP. They may suggest changes to your lifestyle, recommend treatments such as vaginal oestrogen creams or, in some cases, HRT.
What is HRT?
Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) restores the balance between oestrogen and progesterone in the body and for many can relieve the symptoms of the menopause. It can come in tablet form or as a gel, skin patch or implant. However, it is known to increase the risk of heart disease and some cancers. It is therefore usually recommended for short periods of time only.