Can I exercise my way to my pre-menopausal bod?

Probably not. As I’ve said, Mother Nature is working against us. But with perseverance, you can likely prevent or slow weight gain—and, more importantly, it can give you a higher quality of life and actually stave off illness.

Longitudinal studies have found that people who are more fit at midlife have lower levels of chronic illnesses, such as heart failure, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, colon and lung cancers, as they age. Although other factors, such as heredity, play a role, in general, higher fitness levels were strongly linked with lower rates of major chronic illnesses. “Compression of morbidity” is when debilitating illness doesn’t happen until close to the end of life—and people with healthy, active lifestyles tend to have compression of morbidity. 

You’ll also have to approach exercise differently in your golden years than you did before. You won’t be able to just take off running without a serious warm up; you’ll have to watch your form more carefully; you’ll want to opt for low-impact exercise. Your postmenopausal exercise regimen should contain four elements:

  • Cardio. This is the aerobic stuff that gets your heart rate up, like walking fast enough that you can talk, but not sing (about 3.5 mph, which I find I can do with practice and conditioning), biking, swimming, dancing. Unless you know your joints can take it, stick with low-impact aerobics. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends two-and-a-half hours of moderately strenuous aerobic exercise per week.

Lately, high intensity interval training (HIIT) is recommended to increase the effectiveness of an aerobic workout. In this regimen you alternate bursts of higher activity, such as jogging, with a less active period, such as walking. This gives you an “afterburner” effect in which your muscles continue to burn oxygen after the period of high activity. This AARP article has a good explanation of the benefits of HIIT.

  • Strength (resistance) training. This helps you maintain muscle strength. (Remember that you lose at least 20 percent of muscle mass as you age.) You can use weights or resistance bands, body weight or exercise machines. The CDC recommends weight training two days per week.
  • Flexibility. Stretching and toning exercises maintain your range-of-motion and keep your tendons healthy and your joints juicy. Don’t bounce or jerk while stretching. Hold positions for at least 30 seconds and don’t stretch to the point of pain. It’s a good practice to stretch after your regular workout. Here’s a simple stretching routine from the Mayo Clinic. Yoga is fabulous for maintaining flexibility and relieving stress. (Listen to our podcast on this topic here.) It also counts as strength training, so consider joining a class once or twice a week.
  • Balance. Balance is another capacity that diminishes with age, but it’s important to maintain because injury from falls is common and serious. Tai chi is a great discipline to improve balance, but so are simple exercises, such as standing on one foot, unassisted, for 10 seconds or standing first on tiptoe and then heels—simple exercises you can do every day.

Arguably, the hardest part about exercise is getting started. If you have any health conditions that might limit your activity, such as high blood pressure or arthritis, you need to talk with your doctor about what exercises you should and shouldn’t do.

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