As we age the stop and go of our hormone levels can make achieving weight loss or muscle gain feel like navigating highway traffic…but it doesn’t have to keep you at a standstill!
You might be experiencing several symptoms very common with the changes that ensue from your menstrual cycle and the stages of menopause that occur over the course of a woman’s life. Cue the hot flashes, fatigue, mood swings, difficulty sleeping, and decreased muscle definition or weight loss. The key to maximizing your fitness performance and overall results is to gain a better understanding of how your reproductive system and metabolism are connected and how it affects exercise.
So what happens with our hormones as we age? First, it is important to know what the major female hormones are and their primary functions. Two major female sex hormones—estrogen and progesterone—play critical roles in a woman’s reproductive system and they are produced and released primarily by the ovaries. Estrogen plays a key role in bone metabolism and deficiencies in estrogen can have a negative impact on bone mineral density. Progesterone regulates menstruation and supports pregnancy in the female body by stimulating glandular development and the development of new blood vessels. This makes for an ideal environment for a fertilized egg to be implanted. According to various studies, estrogen can improve performance by altering fat, protein, and carbohydrate metabolism while progesterone acts as estrogen’s rival.
A woman’s menstrual cycle and menopause alter these hormone levels, which can impact not only how your body fuels itself during a workout, but your overall performance. Let’s start with your menstrual cycle. Your overall menstrual cycle, on average, lasts about 28 days, but this can vary from individual to individual. During the course of your cycle, you will experience four phases: the menstruation phase, the follicular phase, the ovulation phase, and the luteal phase. Once you take into account where you are in your overall cycle you can anticipate how this might affect your training and what you can do to still achieve results and improve performance.
We all know it, that “time of the month” when your bill just dropped (you have your period) and you might not be feeling your best. You might also be wondering if you should work out at all. During this phase, typically days 1 to 7 of your cycle, the uterus is shedding the lining (hence the bleeding) it builds up during the month. This is when your progesterone and estrogen levels will be at their lowest, which coupled with blood loss, can have you feeling very depleted of energy. As your period progresses these hormone levels progressively increase. So depending on how you feel exercising can help decrease menstrual cramps, but you should take a less intense approach by doing light stretching or yoga, walking and if you want to strength train, drop your weights or focus on bodyweight-only exercises.
Now that your period is over you are in the follicular phase, typically days 1 to 11, because this phase actually starts on day 1 of your period and continues until you start ovulation. During this phase, you will notice an increase in your energy levels because after menstruation is done your estrogen levels are boosted as your body gets ready to release an egg that sits inside a “follicle.” This happens because your body creates the follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) which sends a signal to your ovaries to create the eggs. Several studies propose that estrogen peaks enhance glucose appearance and utilization by the slow-oxidative type I muscle fibers. So if you have been wanting to try a new workout this is the time to take advantage of this energy rise. HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) is a great option to help you burn more calories. Boxing is another great option and if you are a lifting type of gal definitely up those weights!
During the ovulation phase, typically days 12 to 19 of your cycle, your levels of estrogen will still be high. You will also gain levels of the LH hormone (luteinizing) which triggers your body to begin to ovulate, plus still have the increased FSH. This is “go time!” and when those high-energy workouts need to be on your to-do list! I highly recommend Tabata type workouts, circuit training or even pace running.
The luteal phase, typically days 20 to 28, is the last phase of your menstrual cycle. Though you might still have energy leftover from ovulation, that will decrease as you approach menstruation again. During this phase your progesterone levels peak and for some women they can experience drowsiness. Several studies have referenced that core body temperature increases during this phase which can make certain types of workouts quite uncomfortable especially during the warmer months when you might be outside more. It is important to note there is also an increase in estrogen concentrations relative to progesterone levels during this phase suggesting that endurance performance can readily improve.
When thinking about how best to exercise, take into consideration that your energy levels are declining. Yoga or Pilates is a great option that helps release tension in your muscles while still improving overall strength. If you have to get in that cardio focus on lighter intensity/lower impact like swimming, biking, or walking.
Menopause, when menstruation ends for at least a year, is an important transition in a woman’s life that does bring with it some challenges. These challenges can affect your fitness performance, but should not stop you from starting or maintaining a fitness routine. But what exactly happens during menopause? It’s time to get a bit technical.
During menopause, the number of ovarian follicles declines and the ovaries become less responsive to the two other hormones involved in reproduction—Luteinizing Hormone (LH) and Follicle-Stimulating Hormone (FSH). As your ovaries age and release fewer hormones, FSH and LH can no longer perform their usual functions to regulate your estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. In addition, as these levels decrease so does a higher utilization of fat as an energy source. Therefore women use less fat and more carbohydrate to fuel exercise. Many women will experience more abdominal fat and a loss in bone mass and density which can lead to osteoporosis and a greater risk of a fracture if you fall.
Though menopause comes with so much change, which can greatly impact your motivation to maintain an exercise routine, there are so many benefits of having one and they far outweigh the cons. Consistently exercising can increase your bone density by strengthening your bones, reducing your risk of cancer and other diseases like diabetes, preventing weight gain, and helping to lift your mood which translates into improved mental and emotional health.
Incorporating strength training, especially using resistance with weights, is essential in maintaining musculoskeletal health because it can have a positive impact on bone formation by promoting changes in several hormones including estrogen, testosterone, insulin, and the parathyroid hormone. To maximize your performance during menopause, especially fat utilization, it is recommended that you include a combination of training methods such as:
- Total body resistance training that focuses on engaging more muscle groups together in one exercise
- Interval training with moderate and high-intensity intervals or bouts of intense effort
- Lower intensity/longer duration endurance routines like walking, elliptical, and stair stepping machines
- Fast, continuous steady-state training where you are training at your maximum threshold and sustaining that effort for at least 20 minutes or the duration of your entire workout (e.g. “tempo-run” in running)
It is also important to include stretching plus stability and balance exercises in your overall routine to help improve flexibility, core strength, and range of motion.
Tracking your menstrual cycle and learning more about your specific symptoms during both your cycle and when you enter menopause is key in navigating the ups and downs. When you have an increased knowledge of how your hormones are affecting your body you can make more informed choices about the types of exercise routines that can maximize your performance so you can still achieve your best results. Knowledge is power so use it wisely!!!