Women today are privy to more information about the physical and emotional changes that accompany menopause than ever. We know now that menopause is defined by changes that occur over several years, rather than simply the cessation of menstrual cycles for a period of 12 consecutive months.
Health care experts now discuss "perimenopause," a period of three to six years prior to menopause, when familiar symptoms, such as hot flashes, weight gain (especially in the abdominal region), mood swings, vaginal dryness and unpredictable menstrual bleeding often begin. Most women will experience menopause between the ages of 45 and 55, with the average age of menstrual cessation being 51.
Menopause is triggered by decreased production of the female hormones estrogen and progesterone. The ovaries no longer produce enough of these hormones to build up the lining of the uterus each month.
In addition to affecting menstrual flow, reduced levels of estrogen and progesterone affect other health factors, from bone mass to cardiovascular disease. After menopause, women lose an average of 2 percent to 3 percent of their bone density each year. The risk of osteoporosis greatly increases. Likewise, as estrogen levels decrease, total cholesterol levels go up, increasing the risk of heart disease.
Exercise is a wonderful tool for balancing the effects of menopause, both physical and emotional. It is well documented that weight-bearing exercise builds bone mass, and that aerobic exercise can reduce the risk of heart disease. Strength training also builds muscle mass, which can help combat weight gain by increasing an individual's metabolism. Recent studies indicate that regular aerobic exercise may minimize hot flashes, decreasing their severity by as much as 55 percent. In addition, exercise can have a positive influence on mood, reducing irritability, fatigue and insomnia. For menopausal women to achieve the maximum benefits of exercise, they should create a well-rounded program that includes aerobic exercise, resistance training and relaxation techniques. I recommend following the American College of Sports Medicine's guidelines, which call for three to five aerobic workouts per week (20 to 60 minutes in length) and two strength-training workouts per week. Deep breathing has been found to be an effective treatment for hot flashes. And as flexibility exercises are a wonderful way to promote deep breathing and relaxation, they are an important component of any program because they improve your range of motion and lower your risk of injury, as well. 2001, Jazzercise Inc., Los Angeles Times Syndicate