woman exerciseWith its fluctuating hormones, menopause and the unpleasant symptoms that often accompany it - hot flashes, difficulty sleeping and fatigue - may have you looking for the nearest sofa or easy chair. But, fight the temptation, strap on your sneakers, and get moving instead.

Cardiologist Dwithiya K. Thomas, MD, FACC of St. Luke’s Cardiology Associates, says exercise may help you feel better before and during menopause, and help you stay stronger as you age.

Whether you’ve been active all your life or just starting out, exercise will speed up your metabolism and help you sleep better. In addition, it might just help you fight another common side effect of menopause: weight gain.

But what is its effect on the symptom most commonly associated with menopause – hot flashes, also called hot flushes? Many women who experience them shy away from exercise (especially strenuous types) for fear of bringing them on, making them worse, or harming themselves by raising their body temperature too high.

“Not to worry,” Dr. Thomas says. “The body is able to regulate temperature. The fact that you’re perspiring is a good sign that your body is working as it should.” In fact, recent studies indicate exercise, such as running, biking or rowing, may actually reduce the intensity and frequency of hot flashes.

For optimal health, Dr. Thomas recommends a combination of cardiovascular exercise and weight training. Both strengthen muscles and bones, which can ease movement, reduce pain, and help prevent falls later in life.
“By the time a woman reaches 20, she begins to lose bone density,” Dr. Thomas says. “Walking, running, and using light weights can decrease this loss.”

Exercise also significantly reduces your health risk for many chronic diseases. For example, people who exercise regularly reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease by 40 percent and stroke by 30 percent. It also dramatically reduces your risk of developing diabetes, she says.

Although it seems counter-intuitive, exercise may also relieve pain and discomfort caused by arthritis. But it depends on the person. “Individuals with severe arthritis and bone loss need to use caution to prevent injury or falls,” she said. “If they are experiencing active inflammation, they may want to hold off until it clears or participate in a non-weight bearing activity like swimming.”

Similarly, people who have never exercised before might want to talk with their physician first, especially if they have heart disease or another chronic illness. Their doctor might want to give them specific instructions.

“I’ll give some of my patients a prescription of what to do,” she says. “For example, I might say walk for 10 minutes a day, three days a week and steadily increase the amount of time and frequency. When I see you again in six weeks, I want you to have worked up to 25 minutes a day, five times a week. By having a prescription, you can hold them accountable to it.”

Dr. Thomas encourages her patients to continue exercise long after their menopausal symptoms subside. “There’s no age when you should stop exercising,” she says. “I’ve seen some 90 plus year-olds still keeping up with their walking programs.”

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