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Running and the Menopause

There’s good news for runners! Running can help manage the perimenopause and set women up for a healthy future beyond the menopause too. Our women’s health expert Dr Juliet McGrattan gives us the low down on running and the menopause.

There are almost 4 billion women in the world and each of them will at some point, experience the menopause. Despite being less of a taboo subject than it used to be, the menopause still remains a difficult topic of conversation for many people. It’s vital that we talk about it, raise awareness and become informed so that we know what to expect if we are going to go through it ourselves and understand how to support the women around us.

What actually is the menopause?

The word menopause comes from the Greek words men (meaning month) and pausis (meaning pause). It’s literally when monthly periods stop. You’ve officially reached the menopause when you haven’t had a period for 12 months. The average age for the menopause is 51 but it’s lower than this in low and middle income countries. Before the menopause you are in pre-menopause, after it you are in post-menopause. The time leading up to the menopause when most women experience symptoms is called the peri-menopause. The peri-menopause lasts an average of seven years.

Our ovaries produce a range of hormones, the most important being oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone. Ovarian function declines with age and these hormone levels begin to fall. They can also drop abruptly if a woman has surgery to remove her ovaries or undergoes other medical treatments which induce menopause.

The symptoms of the menopause

The falling levels of oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone cause a huge range of symptoms in women. Around 25 per cent of women say their symptoms are severe. Every system of the body can be affected. Here are some of around 40 reported symptoms of the menopause:

  • Disrupted sleep                    
  • Hot flushes
  • Night sweats
  • Joint pains
  • Breast pain
  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • Brain fog
  • Mood changes
  • Palpitations
  • Weight gain
  • Headaches
  • Loss of confidence
  • Irregular and heavy periods
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Urinary incontinence

And the list goes on! These symptoms can have huge effects on a woman’s wellbeing as well as on her ability to do her job. In fact, women are leaving their jobs, reducing their hours and not applying for promotions because of their symptoms.

Running during perimenopause

It can be a real challenge to stay active at this time of life. The symptoms listed above don’t exactly make you want to put your running shoes on and dash out of the door. Changes to your body have a knock on effect to your running. Women who are already runners can find themselves running less or stopping altogether and the extra barriers for non-runners can prevent them even starting.

It is however a really great time to start and stay running. Lifestyle changes such as exercise, good nutrition and relaxation are key to managing the menopause. They’re important for all women and can be used alongside hormone replacement therapy when that’s required.

It’s important to remember that something is better than nothing. If you are someone who is struggling to run right now, keep in mind that just a bit on days that you can manage it will bring benefits and is worth the effort. Be flexible with your exercise, enjoy what you can do and don’t beat yourself up about what you can’t.

How can running help with the menopause?

We need to do what we can to overcome the challenges and keep active. Here are some of the reasons why running helps with the menopause:

  • Running strengthens bones. Our bone mass peaks around the age of 30 and we lose a little every year, there’s a sudden surge in that loss around the menopause. Running is a weight-bearing exercise that helps to stimulate bone growth and slow down that reduction. It helps to maintain bone mass and prevent osteoporosis a condition of low bone density.
  • Running builds muscle. In the same way that our bone mass reduces as we age, we lose muscle mass too. Low muscle mass is called sarcopenia.  It’s vital that we build and preserve our muscle to help protect our joints and keep us mobile and independent as we age.
  • Running helps prevent weight gain. Gaining weight is one of the symptoms women hate most about their menopausal years. Running regularly will help to control this natural weight gain and building muscle will help to boost your basal metabolic rate, this is the energy your body needs to just keep functioning daily and it typically slows as we age
  • Running improves mood. Mood changes, ranging from mild grumpiness to clinical depression are a feature of the menopause. Exercise is a proven treatment for mild to moderate depression. The body’s release of endorphins during vigorous exercise such as running can benefit everyone.
  • Running improves general health. The risks of many diseases start to increase when women reach the menopause. Regular running is a great way to reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, dementia, breast cancer, bowel cancer and many more conditions.
  • Running reduces menopausal symptoms. There’s growing evidence that the aches and pains, fatigue and possibly the hot flushes of the menopause can be reduced by exercise. It’s not always easy to get out but it’s always worth it.
  • Running improves sleep. Sleep disruption is one of the most challenging symptoms of the menopause. Sometimes it’s due to night sweats or toilet but often it’s just an inability to get off to or stay asleep. Running and vigorous exercise is well known to improve sleep patterns. Exposure to early morning daylight is beneficial for sleep so it’s probably better to run then and avoid running late at night which can keep some people awake.
  • Running brings you friends. Sometimes all you need is someone to have a good moan to, someone to sympathise with what you’re going through or someone to motivate you to get out and run. Running friends are great for all of these. If you’re a member of a 261 Fearless club you’ll understand how a community of women can lift you up, make you feel normal and spur you on to achieve more than you thought possible, whether you’re menopausal or not!

Read more about typical running niggles and how to manage them.

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