Common "wisdom" is that we should take it easier as we get older. Science tells us the exact opposite. Menopausal women can use exercise, specifically high intensity exercise, to replace some of the effects that estrogen used to supply and counteract the effects of aging. Although the number of studies of menopausal women, particularly active ones, has been limited, we do have sufficient data to show that high intensity interval training (HIIT) improves insulin sensitivity and the ability of the body to use oxygen, improves cardiovascular function, reduces belly (visceral) fat, produces muscle growth, lowers fasting blood glucose levels, increases production of human growth hormone and testosterone (which aid in muscle growth) with decreases in estrone (which is also responsible for visceral fat production), stimulates release of vascular endothelial growth factor (which makes your blood vessels more responsive) and increases the number of mitochondria. HIIT also reduces stress, including reducing cortisol levels, and can make you smarter by prompting release of brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) which aids brain health. These effects are particularly important to menopausal women who are losing muscle mass, adding visceral fat (menopausal women have higher levels of cortisol which causes visceral fat storage), experiencing reduced insulin sensitivity which results in higher blood glucose (and diabetes), suffering from less responsive blood vessels, having higher incidence of brain fog, depression, and increased risk of dementia, and showing marked increased risk of cardiovascular disease. In short, HIIT is one answer to nearly all of these issues faced by menopausal women.
According to Stacy Sims, author of Next Level, the best type of HIIT for menopausal women is SIT (short intensity intervals.) As the name implies, these are short bursts of high intensity exercise. Two to three sessions a week will produce results without overdoing it. If you happen to be an overachiever and subscribe to the "more is better" philosophy, let me reassure you that research studies support that the positive effects of SIT are not increased with more frequent or longer sessions. In fact, the opposite is true.
How do you do SITs? Pick an exercise that works for you. Running and cycling are good options. Cycling has shown the best effect in studies, but you can pick from lots of things - paddle boarding, rowing, swimming, Nordic skiing, speed skating, etc. Warm up for 5-10 minutes, then push as hard/fast as you can for 20 seconds (this is going to hurt) and then rest for 10 seconds before repeating up to 8 more times. Rest 5-10 minutes and do it again if you have the fitness. Work up to 3 sets and do it 2-3 times per week. Make sure you finish the workout with a 5–10-minute cool down. An alternative approach would be to use hills to add intensity. In this instance, run or bike up a hill for 20-30 seconds and descend slowly. Repeat using the same regimen described above. As you can see, SITs take only 2 minutes for one set or less than 20 minutes including recovery time if you do 3 sets so there's no arguing that you don't have time to do this.
How about that 2-hour bike ride/trail run that you love to do? You can still do it in your menopausal years, but don't do it more than twice per week. Long, steady endurance exercise causes an increase in cortisol that persists. Menopausal women do not need to be increasing their already higher cortisol levels because it leads to even more visceral fat, fatigue, lower sex drive, sleeplessness, disrupted digestion and mental function, weakened immune system, loss of muscle and bone, and mood swings and depression.
A good rule of thumb for exercise during menopause is that if you're not exercising very hard or very easy, you might not be getting the effects that you hope. Substitute some HIIT workouts for those moderate workout days. Substitute easy workouts for other moderate workout days. During menopause, those gray area workouts (physical exertion 5-7 on a 10 scale) that served you well and made up the bulk for your exercise regimen during your reproductive years are no longer the right answer.
If you're wondering how in the world you're supposed to fit your HIIT workouts with your weight workouts and your plyometric workouts and your fun 2-hour bike rides, don't sweat it (pun intended.) Since many of your new workouts are short, they can be stacked. For example, you can do your HIIT and plyometrics workouts on the same day as you lift weights. Warm up for 5 minutes, then do your 2-20 minutes of HIIT, lift weights for 25-30 min, and finish off with 10 minutes of plyometrics. You'll be out of the gym in approximately one hour. Take your 2 days of long endurance training. Add up to 2 days of yoga, stretching, easy training. Don't forget at least one day per week of complete rest.
Sunday - long endurance
Tuesday - HIIT, lift weights, plyometrics
Wednesday - yoga
Thursday - HIIT, lift weights, plyometrics
Friday - stretching, yoga, or rest
Saturday - long endurance
Menopause is no time to wind down your activity and "take it easy." Exercise is more important than ever to counteract the detrimental effects of decreased estrogen and normal aging. Your menopausal physiology simply requires an approach that's different than what worked during your reproductive age years. Avoid exercise that wears you down but does not prompt the training effect that you're seeking. Work hard on the hard days, easy on the easy days, and continue your fun, long endurance days.
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