With commentary by JoAnn Pinkerton, MD, executive director of The North American Menopause Society.
Leading a more sedentary life is linked to more severe hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms, according to a new study that surveyed women in Central and South America.
The survey found that those who reported more severe menopause symptoms were less active than those who reported fewer severe symptoms.
The results, published online in the journal Menopause, analyzed the records of more than 6,000 women from 11 Latin American countries. The authors defined a sedentary lifestyle as fewer than three weekly, 30-minute periods of physical activity—which may be more exercise than how people tend to define sedentary. It’s not completely inactive, but it’s not meeting the minimal exercise requirements.
The study found that sedentary women were 28 percent more likely to report severe menopause symptoms compared with active women. Symptoms included hot flashes, joint pain, depressed mood and anxiety, insomnia, sexual problems vaginal dryness and bladder problems. The sedentary women also had higher total menopause scores, and more of them had any of the individual symptoms than the active women did.
A sedentary lifestyle was also associated with a 52 percent increased risk of obesity, and higher scores on the depression, anxiety, and insomnia scales.
“Exercise affects the release of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters and thus makes you feel better,” says JoAnn Pinkerton, MD, executive director of The North American Menopause Society. “The theory is that release of the brain chemicals, serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine, widen the temperature zone in the brain, which has narrowed in symptomatic women,” she says. That leads to fewer hot flashes or chills.
Exercise also improves mood, mental sharpness, and the quality of your sleep “Being active every day will help you have less severe hot flashes and improve your mood, your coping ability and may decrease your risk of cognitive loss,” says Dr. Pinkerton.
The study found that inactive women were 21 percent more likely to experience hot flashes and 17 percent more likely to be depressed..
To get the benefits of exercise, you need at least 30 minutes three times per week, though more is even better.
“Although the gym is a great place to exercise, many women are too busy. I encourage women to add activity to every day, whenever and wherever you can,” says Dr. Pinkerton. You could also do 10 minutes of exercise three times a day, such as taking three brisk walks. Even light physical activity such as walking can improve your health risks and lower menopausal symptoms, she says.
Try to aim for a combination of aerobic activity, which is also good for your cardiovascular health, and strength training, which will strengthen your bones.