Few topics are as intimidating to address as female hormonal changes after the age of 40. Stringing those words together elicits visions of hot flashes, irritable lashing out, sexual decline, and eternal damnation—but that’s not a realistic expectation. Changes in female hormones are natural, and while symptoms are often inevitable, suffering from them is not. Let’s start with what happen as women pass the age of 40:
- Metabolism slows down
- Muscle mass decreases
- Bone density decreases
- Libido declines
- Stress levels tend to increase
- The likelihood of depression increases
None of these changes are dramatic or instantaneous. They occur slowly as women age and can be attributed to perimenopause, the transition into menopause as a result of a fluctuation in estrogen and progesterone levels as women enter their late 30’s and early 40’s. For some women the symptoms are worse than for others, depending on how well they support a healthy hormone balance. Symptoms of perimenopause and menopause can be easily and substantially mitigated through healthy lifestyle choices. Therefore, do not accept biological chaos as your fate during menopause. Discomfort can be mild to nonexistent if you treat your body right.
The first hormone of importance is estrogen. Estrogen starts to decline as women enter perimenopause. This directly increases the likelihood of depression as women with lower estrogen levels often suffer from depression as well as a low libido caused by vaginal dryness and mood swings. Estrogen therapy can assist with these symptoms, but for those interested in more homeopathic approach, try:
- Consuming soy products such as: soybeans, soy milk, and tofu; that contain compounds that mimic the effects of estrogen.
- Reduce sugar intake, eat nutrient dense foods and exercise.
- Eat flax seeds which have high concentrations of phytoestrogens
- Vitamin E and B supplementation to alleviate symptoms of hot flashes and increased stress.
Research also shows that women who smoke typically experience menopause 1-2 years earlier than their non-smoking counterparts, and that women who have never been pregnant can experience earlier symptoms of menopause than those who have.
Women going through perimenopause experience low testosterone levels as well, which can lead to lower bone density and decreased muscle mass. This is risky for women as they are significantly more at risk for osteoporosis than men. Yes, testosterone is typically thought of as a male sex hormone, but estrogen is derived from testosterone and plays other vital roles in the female body such as managing libido, weight gain and fatigue. Maintaining healthy testosterone levels is dependent on overall health—sufficient sleep, occasionally intense exercise and a nutrient-rich diet. Some doctors may recommend testosterone therapy as well. Recommendations for maintaining healthy testosterone levels through diet include:
- Eat healthy fats like avocados, coconut oil, and Omega-3 supplements.
- Supplement with Vitamin D3 (particularly to help with the prevention of osteoporosis)
- Increase protein consumption: fish, chicken, eggs, nuts. (Older people have the same capacity to convert protein into muscle as younger people).
Intermittent fasting has become a popular anti-aging technique that helps reboot the metabolism and prevent heart disease. However, for women over 40, it can actually worsen glucose tolerance, (i.e. ruin your metabolism and put you at risk for diabetes.) Since the severity of menopausal symptoms is dependent on hormonal health, and hormonal health is dependent on overall physical health, fasting is something that should be avoided.
The next hormone of concern is cortisol, also known as the stress hormone. Women in general are more biologically prone to stress than men and are more at risk for dysregulated stress reactivity, particularly as they age. Cortisol is detrimental because it’s a testosterone antagonist (meaning more cortisol = less testosterone), making it a catabolic hormone that promotes the breakdown of muscle and bone tissue. Stress management is also highly dependent on overall body health. Eating, sleeping, and exercising well are the best immunizations against an overwhelming stress response. Regular sexual activity and meditation can also help increase psychological balance.
I’m convinced aging can, and should, be enjoyable. Even though hot flashes might seem like a nuisance, they are indicative of your body properly calibrating as your hormones change. If you start taking care of your body, it will take care of you.
As you get older, your joints start to stiffen and don’t always function as well as they used to. They may hurt more often and not be able to take as much strain. Many people complain about bad knees or hips as they age. Here are some tips for protecting your joints and caring for them so that they’ll work for many years to come.
Watch Your Weight
Too much extra weight is one of the main causes of joint strain in people of all ages. It is a lot more work for your body to carry excess fat, and your joints take a particularly hard hit. Your knees actually bear a force about three times your body weight every time you take a step. So if you weigh 150 pounds, your knees feel like they are taking on 450 pounds. Every pound will actually make a big difference, so losing a few extra will be extremely beneficial to your joints.
Do Low Impact Cardio
High-impact cardiovascular workouts, like running or plyometrics, are great for your heart but really hard on your joints. Many people injure their knees, ankles, or back from too much high-impact cardio. It’s important to balance out your workouts with low-impact cardio. It doesn’t put as much stress on your bones and still gets you a great workout. Biking, swimming, rowing, or using an elliptical machine are all great ways to do some low impact exercise so your joints can take a break. Cardio gets your blood pumping, keeping the cartilage around your joints nourished as well as reducing stiffness and pain.
Building stronger muscles will help your body absorb some of the force put on your joints. Strong muscles prevent your body from overcompensating elsewhere when you’re working out. If you want to help improve your knees, focus on strengthening your quadriceps (the muscles in the front of your thighs) and your glutes (your butt and outer thighs). A strong core will help stabilize your entire body so you’re not off balance and not putting too much weight in one particular area.
While you can’t really stretch your joints, stretching your muscles keeps them loose and makes you less prone to injury. If you’ve ever had pain in your back while exercising, it could be a sign that your hamstrings are tight. Pain in your knees could be a sign of tight glute muscles. Warm up with active stretches before a workout to get your blood flowing and loosen stiff muscles. Exercising with cold muscles can lead to injuries. Stretch after working out when you’re muscles are warm, as well. You can also take a yoga class to build both strength and flexibility.
Eat a Healthy Diet
Inflammation can be a major cause of joint pain, so you want to make sure you’re not making things worse by eating a diet full of inflammation-inducing foods. Processed sugars and white breads exacerbate inflammation. Eat a diet low in saturated fats with plenty of fruits and vegetables.
You need to take rest days to give your body a break. Overuse is the most common cause of injury for most people. Give yourself a day off at least once a week. For example, taking an easy walk or doing some gentle yoga can be relaxing and invigorating while keeping your muscles from getting too stiff. If you start to feel pain in your joints, don’t try to push through it, ease off a bit.
The holidays are quickly approaching, and with them typically come some added pounds. From munching on leftover Halloween candy to a Thanksgiving feast to too many holiday cookies, it’s way too easy to put on extra weight this time of year. Unusual schedules and travel add another level of complication. Here are some tips for maintaining your weight over the holidays.
Eat Before You Go
If you’re going to a holiday party where you know there will be lots of tempting snacks and treats, eat a small meal before you go. Load up on vegetables and lean protein at home, and then you can enjoy the party food in moderation without worrying about going overboard.
Stick to a Workout Schedule
Don’t let days off from work, holiday shopping, and visiting family throw you off your normal routine. Try to stick to your normal workout schedule as closely as possible. If you know you absolutely won’t be able to follow it, adjust it to something more manageable. Whatever you do, don’t let exercise completely slip by you. Set a goal to help keep you on track. Sign up for a New Year’s or Christmas race to keep yourself motivated.
There is an abundance of unhealthy treats and snacks this time of year. We know it’s not realistic to avoid them altogether. Instead of mindlessly munching on mediocre candies, think ahead about the best desserts of the season and limit yourself to those. If your mom makes an amazing pie at Thanksgiving, hold out for a slice of that. If you have a traditional Christmas cookie you can’t go without, avoid the others available and just eat your favorites. Plus, it will make the desserts you do choose to eat seem more special and delicious.
Calories from alcohol add up quickly, but we don’t always think about the calories we drink. Creamy eggnog and spiked hot chocolate taste good, but they can wreak havoc on a diet. Too much alcohol can also lower your inhibitions and make you crave junk food. Plus, it dehydrates you, leaving you feeling sluggish and sick the next day if you have too much. Drink a glass of water between every alcoholic beverage to help you stay hydrated and limit the amount of alcohol you consume. Water also helps you feel full so you’re less likely to overeat.
Eating in front of the TV leads most people to consume way more calories than they mean to. When you’re distracted by a movie or football game, you’re not necessarily thinking about that third piece of pizza. Plus, commercials for Doritos and M&Ms can make you crave chips or candy you don’t need. Turn off the television and sit down with food on a plate. Chew slowly and don’t rush through meals. You’ll probably end up eating less while enjoying your food more.
The holidays are a stressful time for a lot of people. As fun as they can be, they’re also full of family gatherings, lots of extra spending, and events every weekend. Stress can lead to weight gain, so take time to care for yourself. Get enough sleep, meditate, exercise, read a book, do some yoga. Anything that makes you feel more relaxed so you’re not turning to cookies for comfort.
If you’re looking to get the most out of each workout, it’s important to have an active recovery strategy to help maximize the gains from one workout and build on it for your next session. There are many different ways to help your body recover between workouts, and developing a plan that works for you and making it a habit will help you realize your fitness goals faster.
What Is Active Recovery?
The purpose of recovery time is to allow the body time to rest and repair itself between workouts. This can be done passively by taking the day off from any physical exercise, or it can be done actively by adding gentle recovery activities into your schedule. Though active recovery is often considered to be just a lighter workout to get you moving and keep your muscles from stiffening on your rest day, it can also be anything you actively do to help your body be more prepared for your next workout, including foam rolling, yoga, a brisk walk, or a swim. Active recovery will be very different for a marathon runner compared to someone just beginning their fitness journey, but regardless of where you are, you should feel better after the activity.
Does Active Recovery Work?
Yes. Active recovery has been shown to improve performance at the next workout session. The science shows that even active recovery simulated by wearing compression garments that apply pressure to muscles can help reduce lactic acid buildup. The body was built to move and planning activity on your off day can keep your metabolic pathways primed for performance.
Active recovery has psychological benefits as well. Athletes and dieters alike tend to eat better on active days, rather than writing them off as “free days” to break your healthy habits. All exercise—even mild recovery movement—has the ability to elevate mood through endorphin release, which will keep you motivated even when you’re not training.
How Do You Develop a Personalized Active Recovery Strategy?
Appropriate active recovery activities depend on your current fitness level, your fitness goals and your training intensity. If your average training day includes running 10 miles before breakfast, a brisk walk around the block won’t be enough to activate your muscles and help your recovery efforts. If you’re just beginning to train and your peak exertion is a 1 minute run/1 minute walk alternating workout, a quick walk might be just what you need to keep you going while your muscles recover.
As a general rule, active recovery workouts should last no more than an hour, and active recovery days should make up no more than 2 of your workouts in each week. Limit your exertion to no more than 75% of typical workout exertion, just enough to warm up your muscles but not enough to induce fatigue.
An active recovery day is a great day to have fun and try cross-training outside of your typical workout comfort zone. Try a low-intensity yoga class or give water aerobics a shot. Active recovery should be fun, so it’s a great time to think back to your college and high school years, when a pickup game of basketball or ultimate frisbee was commonplace. Remember to play!
In short, active recovery can be whatever you make it, so long as you remember to limit your exertion to allow your muscles to recover, and remember to have fun so you stay motivated with your fitness goals.
Here are some great examples of active recovery activities that can be modified to all fitness levels:
- Body Weight Exercises
- Pickup sports such as basketball, frisbee or soccer
What Else Can You Do To Recover Faster?
Along with workout based active recovery, there are many other ways to help your body recover between workouts:
Self-Myofascial Release (SMR) has been shown to reduce workout related fatigue, improve range of motion and improve vascular function. With this form of “self massage” on a foam roller, athletes often feel reduced pain and muscle stiffness associated with repeated training activities.
Hydration has a direct impact on exercise performance, and dehydration can reduce high intensity endurance by as much as 10%. Maintaining good hydration between workouts will help your body recover and improve performance at your next workout.
Proper nutrition fuels your body, and while most of us work out once a day, we usually have at least 3 opportunities a day to affect or nutrition. Whatever your diet plan, remember to stick to it between workouts and on off days.
As the weather starts to cool down, more and more of your workouts will move indoors. Before winter hits and you’re exercising in a gym, studio or at home, take advantage of the crisp fall temperatures and get outside while you can. Here are some of the best outdoor fall workouts and some tips for making the most of them.
Fall hikes are great ways to get outside, especially with friends or family. Experience the changing leaves and get a workout at the same time. A brisk hike is a good way to get cardio. If you live near mountains, you’ll get an extra cardio boost from the inclines as well as a strength workout for your legs and glutes.
The treadmill is great when it’s too hot or cold to run outside, but when the weather is crisp, head outside for a jog. Running along a trail will be quieter than the neighborhood streets or sidewalk, plus you get to be surrounded by the fall foliage. Running outside can be a little more difficult and harder on your joints than a treadmill, so alternate running with walking if you get too sore or tired. You’ll get the cardio benefits of a high intensity interval training (HIIT) workout.
Fall is prime sports season—football, baseball, hockey, and lacrosse all happen in the fall. Join the sports league at the office or find a recreational team to get outside, get moving ,and meet some new people. You can also play pickup games with family, friends, and neighbors. It’s more fun and social than working out solo.
It’s not a super intense workout, but it is a great way to get moving while getting some fresh, local produce. Try grape picking in California, visit a pumpkin patch, or harvest apples at an orchard. You’ll walk around, reach for produce, and lift bags or baskets. Plus, you’ll have some delicious, healthy, seasonal food when you get home.
Getting outdoors is fun, but you’ll want to make sure you’re staying safe and healthy. Here are some tips for exercising outside in the fall.
Fall weather can be unpredictable, and temperatures can rise and fall quickly. When exercising outdoors, wear layers and seasonally appropriate clothing. You may be cold when you first leave the house, but you’ll warm up quickly once you get moving, so you’ll want layers you can easily remove. One the flip side, if it’s too cold, you’ll want to have hats and gloves to protect your hands and ears from wind and cold. It’s easy to get overheated or even get hypothermia when exercising in fall, since the temperatures can fluctuate so much.
Use Reflective Gear or Lights
The days are shorter and it gets dark much earlier this time of year, so you don’t have as many daylight hours to exercise. Since it’s not always possible to get out during the daytime, be extra careful while exercising in the dark. Wear clothes and shoes with reflective patches, and use a light if you’re running or biking.
So many people head to the gym with no idea of where to go or how to reach their fitness goals. They aimlessly wander around the weight machines for a bit before parking themselves on an elliptical for 30 minutes and calling it a day. There’s nothing wrong with the elliptical, but it’s not going to drastically change your fitness level if you don’t incorporate other elements into your workout regimen. Here are some tips for creating the best workout plan for your fitness goals.
Make a Goal
Before you head blindly into the gym, you should decide what your individual fitness goals are. Do you simply want to get in better shape? Maintain your current level of fitness? Lose weight? Run a half marathon? Your end goal will shape your plan, determining how often you work out and the types of exercises you do. Don’t go overboard at first, though. If you’ve never run a day in your life, maybe try reaching for a 5K race before jumping right into marathon training.
Create a Timeline
Once you’ve decided on a goal, set a date by which you want to have achieved it. You’ll want it to be close enough that you don’t lose your motivation, but not so close that it’s impossible. You can also set mini-goals for yourself along the way. If you want to lose ten pounds in three months, try setting a six-week goal to lose five pounds. That way you’ll be even more motivated when you see the smaller results, too. When you’re making and finalizing your workout plan, be honest about how many days a week you can reasonably commit to exercising. You don’t want to run a 5K race in three weeks if you only have two days a week to run.
Choose A Workout
After you’ve set a goal and created a timeline, you’ll need to determine the best workouts and exercises that will help you achieve your goal. If you want to complete a triathlon, you know you’ll need to incorporate running, cycling and swimming into your regular routine. If you want to build muscle, you’ll need to lift weights a few times per week. Make sure you’re not solely focused on one particular exercise. You’ll benefit even more if you cross train than if you stick to the same thing day in and day out.
Enlist Some Help
Many gyms offer a complimentary fitness assessment and personal training session when you join, so you should definitely take advantage of that. They’ll be able to show you some of the machines around the gym and come up with a reasonable plan for you to follow. You can even sign up for a few paid sessions with a personal trainer for a more in-depth and personalized plan. Try setting goals with a fitness-savvy friend who can help keep you on track.
Pencil It In
The best workout plan in the world is ineffective if you don’t follow through. Whatever you’ve decided on, stick to the plan. If you’ve committed to four days a week at the gym, find a way to make it there. Put it in your calendar, phone, planner or wherever else to make sure that you make it there.