We are now living longer than ever and this means that we now spend half our lifetime in menopause – 40 years on average for most women.
Hormonal fluctuations can impact on a your health, fitness, body weight, and emotional state. But research is now showing that strength training is an important factor in sustaining your health and fitness as you reaches mid-life and beyond.
Physical Factors Affecting Women in Mid-Life
The years leading up to menopause are called the peri-menopause. It is a time when women naturally experience irregular periods, progressive weight gain, mood swings as well as the typical night sweats, hot flushes, headaches and much more.
At a physiological level, the female body is losing muscle mass at about 500g per year amounting approximately to 5 kilos of weight gain each decade after 40. This weight gain will be more if you aren’t exercising. This means even if we’re not eating any more we will naturally gain weight if we don’t take action.
Metabolism drops significantly and this also impacts our ability to lose weight and stay healthy. Our hormones oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone are fluctuating at varying levels. If we aren’t exercising and add to this too much sugar, caffein and alcohol we can accentuate the menopausal symptoms we experience naturally.
It’s not all doom and gloom, but we need to understand what is occurring in our bodies at this transitional phase of our lives in order to lead a healthier lifestyle.
Women in their 40’s typically notice more weight gain, particularly around the middle.
With a natural progression of muscle loss, combined with a less than optimum diet and little or no exercise, weight gain is inevitable but it doesn’t need to be.
A loss of muscle mass means a drop in metabolism and your metabolic rate determines to some degree how much body fat you gain daily, irrespective of whether or not you exercise.
That’s because muscle helps drive the metabolic rate up – the higher your metabolic rate the easier it is to burn body fat.
Dense muscle (strong muscle fibres are thick and tightly packed together to produce a more defined muscle. This is produced through regular strength training) assists in raising your metabolism.
As we age past 40, the body naturally loses muscle density. But the rate at which we lose muscle naturally can be delayed for many years through a regular routine of strength training exercises.
The Effect of Natural Muscle Depletion
Rate of Muscle Depletion
If you lead a sedentary lifestyle muscle deterioration will speed up. On average, women notice loss of strength from about aged 50 onwards. From age 50-70, a woman can lose up to 30% of her strength through natural muscle loss alone.
Not all muscle loss is naturally-induced. Certain medications can result in noticeable muscle weakness, such as corticosteroids commonly prescribed for asthma or arthritis.
As we enter mid-life the neuro-muscular pathways also slow down. It’s normal. In essence, it means it takes longer for muscles to respond to signals from the brain. It’s the reason why we can no longer run as fast as we could, or lift things as easily as we may have 20 years ago. The speed at which the neural impulses from the brain are sent to the muscles slows down, taking longer to send and receive the signals.
Soft Tissues Stiffen
The mid-life period also brings with it a change in the pliability of soft tissues (tendons, ligaments, as well as muscle). The human body consists mainly of fluids, and some of it can be found inside joints, in tendons, ligaments and muscles. As we age, the fluid content slowly ‘dries up’ leaving the soft tissue structures less pliant and less able to tolerate stress. Consequently, we notice more joint problems as we age.
Muscles are not able to repair quickly as they used to due mainly to lower levels of enzyme activity.
The heart is a muscle that requires constant exercising throughout life. As we enter mid-life, the heart is less able to propel large quantities of blood quickly through the vascular system. By our late 40’s we tire more quickly than we used to, and we require more recovery time following exercise.
Exercise Is the Key
A combination of aerobic activity, strength training and a healthy diet, is the best method of leading a healthier life past 40.
Studies reveal that muscles have a greater capacity than first thought, of synthesising proteins to produce stronger muscle fibres following a short term strength training program. Yarasheski, K. E. (October 2003). “Exercise, aging, and muscle protein metabolism”. The Journals of Gerontology. Series A, Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences 58 (10): M918–M922.
Of course, adopting a long-term strength training routine will bring greater health benefits for longer duration, but this study reveals that even a short-term program can produce amazingly positive results.
So with increased muscle strength comes greater mobility and this is especially important in our 50’s and beyond.
Effects of Strength Training on the Female Body
- When a woman aged 50+ performs a strength training program three times a week, strength gains soon become apparent. On a physiological level, her muscles are changing:
- There is an increase in IGF-1 (Insulin-like Growth Factor) a hormone that assists in muscle growth.
- There is an increase in Type I & Type II muscle cross sectional area. In other words, strength training produces more fast twitch (Type I) and slow twitch (Type II) fibres that are necessary to allow us to lift heavier objects safely, run faster, jump higher and essentially lead a more mobile and active life.
- There is an increase in Myosin Heavy Chain (MHC) synthesis. This allows faster and stronger muscle contractions necessary for daily and physical activities.
- An increase in neural adaptations. The communication pathways between the brain to muscles via the nervous system, become more efficient with regular strength training. Think of it as when you are driving a car – your foot pushes down on the accelerator and the car immediately responds with power and speed. The body reacts in much the same way. Exercise allows the neural pathways to send signals to the muscles faster, allowing the body to run faster, have better balance, agility and co-ordination.
As you can see there are huge benefits to a regular strength training routine. These go well beyond simply having a body worth showing off in jeans!
What is strength training?
When you think of strength training, you may think of men lifting heavy weights and body builders. Strength training can involve weights but it can equally use your own body weight. We have a few sample home workout sessions you can try – “Moving Your Way Through The Menopause”
If you’re new to lifting weights, it’s better if you go to a class or work with a trainer. Your fitness professional will show you how to lift correctly and provide you with a safe program to enhance and improve your general fitness.
If you’re working with weights, here are some ideas on how to approach and progress:
- Do 2-3 sets of 8-20 repetitions per exercise/muscle group
- Your program should consist mainly of exercises that involve more than one joint
- Perform your strength training 3 times a week or more depending on recovery rate.
- Make slight changes to your program every 4-6 weeks depending on your progress.
- Use an intensity scale of 1-10, with 1 being no effort and 10 being extremely difficult. Aim for 7-8 on the intensity scale. This means it is a challenge but it is not to the point that you are losing correct form.
- Increase the weight you are lifting when more than 12 reps of the exercise can be performed with perfect form.
- If you are aiming for 15 reps and you can only perform 8 reps with perfect form, you need to lower the weight.
Strength training refers to more than just gym equipment. For best results you need to utilise all forms of strength training – weight machines, dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells, medicine balls.
Strength training also uses body weight moves such as push ups, chin ups, crunches, lunges, squats, dips.
Strength training also can involve using resistance bands and tubes for a low impact strength workout or for rehabilitation. You can also use equipment such as swiss balls for improving balance and core strength.
For many women strength training is an aspect of fitness that is shunned. Many believing a strength training program will develop a more masculine body.
And many still believe strength gains instead can be gained through aerobic activity such as running or cycling.
There is no doubt about the huge health benefits a strength training program can provide to your body in middle life and beyond. In fact, strength training MUST become an important part of every women’s fitness programme. I have to say I love strength training. I notice such a difference when I’m not keeping up with it.