“My body doesn’t respond to exercise the way it used to…”
“It seems like the more I exercise and diet, the more weight I gain!”
These are common frustrations I hear from women as they approach their 40s, 50s, and 60s. It seems harder and harder to maintain a healthy weight during this phase of life, so women begin to exercise harder, exercise longer, and exercise more intensely. They may decide to restrict their caloric intake or return to a strict diet they might have tried in the past.
More challenges with weight and metabolism, and additionally, perhaps new symptoms such as lack of energy, brain fog, or insomnia.
What’s going on?
Well, to get a better understanding of why this happens and what to do instead, we need to look at a few key points.
We need to tailor our movement to our life stage
Firstly, as women transition through the various stages of menopause, our bodies undergo significant transformations. As our hormones shift and change, our bodies’ unique needs change and our movement routines need to change along with them.
Recent studies have underscored the importance of adapting exercise routines to align with the unique needs of women in perimenopause, menopause, and postmenopause. For example, research published in the "Journal of Women's Health" (2018) highlights the evolving exercise needs of women as they transition through menopause, which demonstrates that traditional exercise routines may not fully address the specific physical changes and challenges women face during this phase.
In addition, recent findings in the "International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching" (2022) reveal that intense exercise regimens, such as aerobics and running, can pose risks to women in the menopausal stage. High-impact activities may lead to excess stress on the body, including joint and bone stress, exacerbating the physical challenges already associated with menopause.
One of the critical reasons we need to change up our movement routines is that as our reproductive hormones decline, we become more sensitive to stress.
And, we often have many sources of stress in our lives during midlife! Excess stress raises cortisol levels.
And elevated cortisol levels cause imbalances in our endocrine system.
Why is this important to know?
Because during this life phase, hardcore aerobic exercise causes excess stress to our bodies! And, that in turn, triggers fat storage as a survival mechanism, which can completely derail our efforts to maintain a weight that feels good to us.
Our bodies have different needs
Secondly, we need to ask why we don’t hear this information more often. Why are we told to exercise more and eat less? Well, the reason is simple. Most scientific research is done on males in their 20s and 30s. According to Debra Atkinson, MS, CSCS, only 39% of all exercise and sports medicine research features women. A fraction of that features women in peri-menopause, menopause, and post-menopause.
We are not male and we are not in our 20s and 30s anymore. Our bodies do not respond the same way a male body responds. Our bodies do not have the same requirements as a male body in their 20s or 30s.
Women go through many natural hormonal phases throughout their lifetime, which men do not, and recent research has illuminated the distinct exercise needs of women as they journey through peri-mid-post-menopause.
Movements for midlife women
So what types of movement do we require at this time? These stages of life come with evolving physical requirements, particularly a call for gentle, flexibility-enhancing movements and strength training or weight-bearing exercises.
According to Dr. Joel Furhman, “Resistance training is the only exercise that can boost metabolism without increasing aging.”
Resistance training, also called strength training or weight-bearing exercise, utilizes the resistance of body weight. In this context, natural forms of movement such as belly dance, yoga, tai chi, qi gong, and walking emerge as tailored solutions to meet these specific needs.
These natural movement practices, as well as squatting, carrying, lifting and reaching, getting up from sitting positions often, and other normal daily movements done with intention, offer precisely the kind of exercise that aligns with the distinct needs of women in these menopausal stages.
Another advantage is that these practices not only provide physical benefits but also address mental and emotional well-being:
Belly dance enhances flexibility, coordination, and balance. Its fluid, rhythmic movements improve joint mobility and reduce stiffness, making it an ideal choice for women going through menopause.
Targeted weight-bearing and resistance training exercises can improve balance and flexibility, reducing the risk of falls and injuries.
Recent research showcases the stress-reducing properties of gentle natural movements such as yoga, tai chi, qigong, and belly dance. This is essential as perimenopause, menopause, and postmenopause can bring increased stress and anxiety. The mindful, rhythmic movements induce a state of flow, which can be calming and meditative.
Studies also reveal that belly dance, along with yoga and similar natural movement practices, can significantly improve body image and self-esteem. It empowers women to reconnect with their femininity and sensuality, fostering self-confidence and body positivity.
We know that mindfulness and meditation are critical components of stress reduction as well as personal and spiritual development. These forms of natural movement can provide a space for women to connect with their inner selves, tap into creativity, and find a sense of grounding through tradition and history.
By embracing these practices, we can navigate the transformation of menopause with grace and vitality while honoring our changing bodies and embracing the beauty and wisdom of our bodies as mature women.