How the menopause affects fitness & riding
I’ve spoken about female hormones & the menstrual cycle quite a lot on my platform before. Understanding your hormones & the effect they have on your fitness, physique & riding is essential for all women but many of the females I coach are struggling with different hormonal changes.
The menopause is something all females will face at a later stage of life and for many going through the changes can be a real struggle physically, mentally & emotionally.
I'm only 29 so the menopause is not something I've had to contend with yet & fingers crossed it will be a few years at least before that happens! But one thing I have learnt from my clients is that medical advice varies hugely across the board when it comes to menopause & this can lead most women to really be confused & struggle with understanding what is going on. That's from clients in the UK, Europe & America.
Some doctors tell you to just carry on, others put you straight onto HRT & some may even tell you that you’re not go through the changes!
This then leaves women going through or approaching these changes completely confused, apprehensive and anxious about what is happening to their bodies.
***NB I am by no means an expert on this subject but I am sharing what I have learned & my experience of working with females over the years going through these changes!!
Just the same as when we have healthy periods it’s so important to understand the changes our hormones go through when menopause occurs so that we can work with our bodies and not against them!
In definition, menopause is when females become no longer fertile. We are no longer able to conceive a child & our fertility system stops working. This typically happens to women in their late 40's-early 50's but it can happen to some women even earlier.
There are various stages of the menopause and again everyone is different, for some the process may last months and others could go through the stages of menopause across a few years.
The perimenopause is right at the beginning of the journey before the menopause actually occurs & this is when many of the physical changes will begin to happen. Menopause is defined as the time after your last period, so when you no longer have any bleeding & permanent cessation of the menstrual cycle.
The peri-menopausal stage is when many get symptoms such as night sweats, hot flushes, weight gain, increased stress, low energy levels and these can all be indicators that your hormones are beginning to change. During this phase your last "normal" period would have happened before these changes but you'll go through phases of getting periods & irregular bleeds until your last period occurs when in the peri-meonpause phase.
There’s nothing you can physically due to stop or slow down the menopause but you can definitely help your body and hormones to cope as you go through these changes! Understanding what is happening hormonally will make adjusting to your normal life & riding much easier!
Subjects like menopause can almost be embarrassing for some females to talk about but they shouldn’t be at all! It’s a natural process that the body goes through so we need to remove the stigma and talk about it more so women feel supported and have the information they need when this happens.
The peri-menopause for most is the worst time. Your estrogen hormone levels dramatically drop after your last "normal period" & this is when all those symptoms will start appearing due to the hormone changes!
Weight gain typically occurs in this time & that is partly because of the drop in your estrogen hormone. Low-quality sleep and regular, age-related reductions in metabolism and muscle tone can also contribute to this weight gain which for most females typically leads to excess fat stored around the abdominal area
We all know at the best of times we can feel self-conscious in jodphurs & our show gear so this is not going to help you feel any better in yourself or body image especially when riding. One thing many of the ladies I have coached through this time have struggled with is brain fog too.
Going into their dressage test, trotting up the centre line & having a total blank. Again brain fog is very common for many women at this time & can seriously affect some females. This is mainly due to the changes in hormones so if this happens to you don't beat yourself up!
I have talked plenty about the symptoms and effects of menopause and most of you going through this will be far more of an expert than I am, obviously!
But what can you do to help your body through this time and keep yourself in your normal fitness and riding routine as much as possible?
When we go through these hormonal changes physically our bone density decreases and muscle mass naturally reduces. That's why adding in some strength or resistance-based training is absolutely essential to maintain & preserve your muscle mass long term & to keep your bones as healthy as possible.
Older women are far more prone to developing illnesses such as osteoporosis due to hormonal changes so the more you can do to strengthen your bone density & bulletproof your body the better! The last thing you want to be doing is falling off & breaking something!
Keeping your protein intake high is really important through this time especially if you're struggling with weight gain. Eating protein will help you to feel full up between meals as well as maintaining your muscle mass. If you're struggling with weight gain make sure to try and include a protein source such as chicken, fish, skyr yoghurt or pulses with each of your meals. This will help to reduce the chance of gaining excess weight too but protein should be a focus for all females whether weight gain is an issue or not!
Due to the hormone changes, many women find they hold the majority of their fat around their abdominal section even if previously they've never held fat there. You cannot spot reduce fat but obviously making sure you are in a caloric deficit is essential in order to either reduce further weight gain or lose weight.
You can still make progress with weight loss during the menopause but it is going to be slightly harder and probably slower than previously because as you get older your bodies metabolic rate does slow down. So that does need to be considered and what you will find is that your calories will be slightly lower than before as your metabolic rate has declined slightly therefore your body requires less energy so fewer calories.
Keeping activity high at this time is really important too. If you're not sleeping well your energy levels are obviously going to be low and you're not going to feel motivated to move but action breeds how you feel. Keep yourself moving as this will help you to feel physically and mentally good but also it will help you to maintain and balance your body weight much easier!
You might find that you have more joint pain or muscle stiffness than normal going through these changes and that is normal too. If you need to adapt your riding or intensity of fitness/training at this time then do. The worst thing you can do is put your body under too much stress as your risk picking up an injury or hurting yourself.
Be kind to yourself, maybe reduce your schooling sessions from 2 to 1 per week while you go through these changes and scale back your workout so that they are slightly less effort and stress for you if needed! Adding in extra stretching, foam rolling & mobility can all really help too.
Sleep is something that is hugely affected by the menopause and again this affects everybody differently. You need to be aware that a lack of sleep obviously leads to low energy but also you are more at risk of developing an injury so listening to your body and backing off when needed is essential!
The best thing you can do to try to keep your sleep as normal as possible is follow a consistent bedtime routine. Try to stick to going up to bed at the same time every night and try something like reading a book or listening to a podcast to help you switch off and fall asleep. Screen lights suppresses your sleepy hormones so you're far better trying one of those and hopefully it will help you to sleep better.
Emotionally, the menopause can be really depressing for many women as well. For some, you'll feel like your body is out of your control and these changes are happening even though you don't want them to. The more you can realise & acknowledge that it's a natural process the better you're going to cope with it. This is where adding in fitness whether that be running, cycling or weight training is so important as it will help you to protect your mental health & focus on other things.
When you exercise your body releases feel-good hormones and endorphins and this is really going to help you to feel mentally good. Training & continuing riding can also help you to have focus and purpose which at this time can be really hard for many females so it's a win all round!
Facing the menopause is not a fun time and it can be a really hard journey for many women. It's important like I said at the start to talk about it because then you're going to be able to cope with it better but also realise how to adapt your life, training and riding around the changes so that you can make this time of your life as easy as possible for yourself & protect your health.
I've worked with many clients who are going through these changes and at the start it can feel like the end of the world is coming and what is the point on working on yourself. Yes, menopause will mean changes are slower and progress probably won't be as fast as it was before or maybe it will look different to where you were 10 years ago but change is still possible and achieving your goals is still an option.
Educate yourself and learn what is happening to your body and then you'll be far more likely to handle this time better & keep yourself feeling as healthy, positive & happy as possible.
This is one of my client's who is currently going through the menopause herself & how her training helped her>>>>>READ HER STORY HERE
I really hope this helps you to understand what is happening a bit better & know you're not alone.