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Regular Exercise May Be Key to Easing Menopause Symptoms

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Key Takeaways

  • A recent study suggests that the volume and intensity of exercise could play a role in alleviating menopause effects like sleep disturbance.
  • Although the study focused on women who went through menopause due to cancer treatment, researchers believe the results would be relevant for those who go through natural menopause.
  • Previous research has found exercise can not only aid with hot flashes but may also help reduce the severity of future menopause symptoms overall.

Increasing the volume and intensity of exercise could help alleviate some common menopause effects like sleep disturbance, according to a study published in the journal Menopause.

The research involved 280 women who had become menopausal abruptly as a result of cancer treatment. When this occurs, symptoms can be more frequent and severe, according to Stephanie Faubion, MD, medical director for the North American Menopause Society and physician at the Women’s Health Clinic at Mayo Clinic.

She adds that some cancer therapies, such as use of tamoxifen, can further exacerbate menopause-related effects.

Making Menopause Easier

For both those undergoing cancer treatment and women experiencing natural menopause, menopause symptoms can include:

In the recent study, women were split into two groups. One simply reported on their physical activity, without any intervention or guidance. The other group was given a digitally delivered lifestyle program that included physical activity recommendations, including moderate and vigorous intensity exercise.

After six months, everyone who engaged in moderate to vigorous exercise, regardless of whether they were in the control or intervention group, reported higher levels of mental well-being and lower levels of sleep disruption.

The study highlights the already well-known benefits of exercise, says Faubion. Although more activity didn’t show an association with fewer hot flashes or less intensity with them in this research, exercise does seem to help with sleep and mood, she adds.

Line Norregaard Olsen, PhD(c)

The main message here is that women benefit from being physically active before menopause because their estrogen levels are still high. They have a better starting point when entering menopause, compared to trying to address the situation afterward.

— Line Norregaard Olsen, PhD(c)

Knocking Out Hot Flashes

Just because exercise in the recent study didn’t show an effect with hot flashes and night sweats—often cited as the most disruptive menopause symptom—doesn’t mean exercise can’t play a role. According to previous research, it may be the type of activity that makes a difference, not the intensity.

According to a study in the journal Maturitas, which focuses on health in midlife and beyond, lifting weights and other resistance training could have a significant impact on hot flashes.

In that study, researchers recruited 58 women who experienced at least four moderate-to-severe hot flashes or night sweats daily. Half did a 15-week resistance-training program, and the other half were part of a non-workout control group.

Hot flashes and night sweats were almost halved among the exercising women compared to no change in the control group. The results were considered so significant that after the study finished, those in the control group were given a free four-month gym membership and an introduction to strength training.

“The exact mechanism of hot flashes is not known, so that makes treatment more difficult,” says study lead author Emilia Berin, PhD, of Linkoping University in Sweden. “However, exercise may affect hot flash frequency because neurotransmitters, like beta-endorphins, are released when we use and challenge major muscle groups.”

But this effect doesn’t tend to occur with cardiovascular activity, she adds. That may be why the recent study didn’t show improvement in hot flashes.

Proactive Approach in Perimenopause

As effective as exercise can be in alleviating some menopause symptoms, it’s also possible that it could be helpful in reducing their occurrence in the future.

A study in The Journal of Physiology found that fitness can be instrumental in blood vessel growth within the muscles. Once menopause arrives, it can be difficult for the body to build new capillaries (tiny blood vessels), so exercising before menopause can help women build up a strong network of blood vessels.

The link between estrogen loss—which happens during menopause—and negative changes in blood vessels is well established, says that study’s co-author, Line Norregaard Olsen, PhD(c) at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports.

Regular training can help increase the number and function of these blood vessels, which could reduce the prevalence of symptoms like hot flashes and sleep problems in the future, she says.

"The main message here is that women benefit from being physically active before menopause because their estrogen levels are still high," says Norregaard.  "They have a better starting point when entering menopause, compared to trying to address the situation afterward."

What This Means For You

Whether you’re in cancer treatment, going through menopause, or in the perimenopause period of life, exercise can be beneficial for many reasons. Doing multiple types of activity, including both cardio and strength training, could help ease menopause symptoms or even them prevent them.

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  1. Bailey TG, Mielke GI, Skinner TS, et al. Physical activity and menopausal symptoms in women who have received menopause-inducing cancer treatments: results from the Women's Wellness After Cancer Program. Menopause. 2020. doi:10.1097/GME.0000000000001677

  2. National Institute on Aging. What are the signs and symptoms of menopause?. Updated June 26, 2017.

  3. Berin E, Hammar M, Lindblom H, Lindh-Åstrand L, Rubér M, Spetz Holm A-C. Resistance training for hot flushes in postmenopausal women: a randomised controlled trialMaturitas. 2019;126:55-60. doi:10.1016/j.maturitas.2019.05.005

  4. Olsen LN, Hoier B, Hansen CV, et al. Angiogenic potential is reduced in skeletal muscle of aged women. J Physiol. 2020;598(22):5149-5164. doi:10.1113/JP280189