Menopause, weight, pain and fatigue – what’s the link?
Updated: Aug 21
Menopause is a natural stage in a woman’s life, marked as the time when a woman stops having periods and unable to get pregnant naturally. The average age of menopause in the UK is 51, and in most circumstances results from the change in sex hormones that comes with increasing age. The associated changes in oestrogen and testosterone levels can, alongside the natural changes which occur with ageing, result in unpleasant symptoms which may be difficult to cope with.
If you have symptoms, you’re not alone. Up to 80% experience symptoms ranging from hot flushes, low mood, fatigue, night sweats and difficulty sleeping generalised aches and pains. Weight gain in middle age, reduced strength and connective tissue changes (leaving skin and tissues saggier) are also common. Fortunately, menopause is less of a taboo subject it has been for previous generations, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy to access credible information and manage pain, exhaustion, ‘memory fade’ and mood in middle age. It’s not all walking aids and beige trousers though! Perimenopause and post menopause can be times of positive change when women may have more time to inform themselves, focus on their own needs and ambitions and look after their own health and wellbeing.
The link with joints, muscles, strength and sag
Studies show we lose up to 3 to 5 per cent of our muscle mass per decade from the age of 30 unless we take regular strengthening exercise. Women’s bones are more vulnerable than men’s too, as menopausal hormonal changes dramatically affect how we build up and break down bone. Women can lose up to 20% of their bone mass in the first 5-7 years post menopause – a staggering loss if not counteracted by strengthening, lifestyle and, when appropriate, medical management. Oestrogen is also important for building collagen, so lower levels at and after menopause change elasticity of the skin and muscles. Women are more susceptible to joint and muscle injury at this time, but with careful management of symptoms and lifestyle, risk drops and recovery quickens.
Before reaching for the wrinkle cream, be assured that evidence shows exercise, diet and lifestyle make a huge difference in how women feel and how they go through midlife. Weight bearing, higher impact exercise, especially exercise which requires you to move in different directions give you a greater return on the time and effort invested, building stronger bones, toning muscles and helping you stay balanced. Think walking trails, tennis and gym sessions. Calcium, Vitamin D and Omega 3 intake is important, and weight gain is not an inevitable consequence of getting older and menopause. Other factors are at play as we get older, making weight harder to shift, but managing calorific intake and reducing sedentary time go a long way to keeping weight down.
Fatigue can be related to the hormonal changes at menopause, and night sweats and changes in sleep pattern can compound this. Reaching for a nightcap may seem logical, but it reduces the quality of sleep, represents empty calories (i.e. those without any nutritious benefit), whilst exercise improves sleep quality and its restorative power. Also talk to your GP if symptoms are problematic or if you have questions about HRT.
My article on Running and Menopause - an in depth scientific take on menopause and this popular form of exercise.
For support from likeminded women, see Menopause Cafe