We all know that a little exercise or activity makes a big difference in our day. But at a time when the world of competitive sports and fitness is increasingly dominated by athletes, many ordinary women need to re-discover that the exercise that matters the most for our health as we age is not the competitive type, but another type of exercise – aerobic, endurance exercise. Don’t worry, after 30 years working in the fitness industry and exercise education, I know myself that fitness messages and experiences have got pretty confusing. That’s why I was so stoked when I heard from one of the ladies on the MyMT programme about the slow-jogging fitness movement in Japan. As she said, “This resonates so much with what you tell us as well Wendy.”
That’s why I’m having a shout-out for good old-fashioned aerobic or endurance exercise for all of us during menopause … especially those of you who want to halt your belly-fat and look after your heart health as you get older. When women come into my Re-Build My Fitness programme as well as the MyMT Transform Me programme, I love it when they understand that to lose weight, we need to be sleeping all night, turning around our liver health AND backing-off too much high intensity exercise until we restore our energy levels again. But what I do encourage them to do is to increase their slower, endurance exercise, and if their joints aren’t sore, I get them to walk or try some slow jogging.
SLOW JOGGING is an exercise method elaborated by Professor Hiroaki Tanaka (Fukuoka University, Japan). He chose the term “slow jogging” to emphasise that jogging doesn’t always have to be done at pace. Slow is a perfectly good way to do it, says Professor Tanaka and I agree. The key he says, is to maintain niko niko pace. It is a an efficient, healthier, and pain-free approach to running for all ages and lifestyles.
In Japanese, niko niko means “smile”. Unlike traditional training, that requires concentration and effort, slow jogging is more like taking a walk, at the intensity light enough to enjoy conversation or, if by yourself, to just smile.
Professor Hiroaki Tanaka formalised his system after using it to improve from 4:11 for the marathon in his thirties to 2:40 when he was fifty-years old and eventually 2:38:50 – his personal best after that. Here he is jogging along the beach [Picture credit: The Natural Running Center]
Now I know that there is a lot of good research about high-intensity exercise – you know, the ‘go-hard, or go-home’ Boot Camp style of training. I used to teach this to Personal Trainers and before I went into my menopause transition, I did a lot of this type of training do it nearly every day myself. But after menopause symptom mayhem left me too exhausted and sore to enjoy this type of activity and I was putting on more and more weight, it was time to turn back to good old fashioned slower, endurance exercise that burns fat more efficiently, whilst I was transitioning through menopause. And yes, whilst there is a growing body of research to suggest that HIIT [high-intensity interval training] is beneficial to us, only 1 or 2 sessions a week is optimal.
What’s more, if you are already overweight, or you have sore joints and muscles (as so many women who come onto the MyMT programmes experience) and you aren’t sleeping, then high intensity exercise is not your priority. I so know how exhausted you will feel!
As I began to understand the physical changes that occur during menopause when our body loses oestrogen and progesterone, [this includes more constricted blood vessels in the heart muscle, increased nerve activation, changing collagen levels in tendons and the loss of muscle], I began to think more about exercise choices for women during this time of life too. With my studies looking at women’s healthy ageing and exercise, I realised that as the first generation of women to enjoy lots of fitness activities on and off over the years, many of us have embraced the sports and fitness industries and have become used to exercising and pushing ourselves harder. But when our symptoms are over-whelming us in menopause, hard-out exercise choices may also be to the detriment of our heart health, joint function and our fat-loss as we go through menopause.
Do you remember in the 1970’s and 1980’s when women were encouraged to do more running? The increase in women’s running and walking events as well as triathlons was the ‘new-way’ to get fit, feel energised and improve health.
I still remember running around Dunedin in the South Island of New Zealand in my 20’s – not fast, but just steady. My two jogging friends talked the whole time and it was such a great way to stay connected. Sports science was only just getting started as one of numerous new types of physical sciences that people could study, so the research into the benefits that this low-to-moderate activity had on our cardiac health and weight management, had not been reported. Although I might add that New Zealand’s pioneer of running coaching, Arthur Lydiard OBE, and his aerobic endurance training system,was still not widely accepted back then either. But in those days, we didn’t jog slowly for the scientific benefits – we just did it because it helped us to feel good and to cope with what life was throwing at us. I had no idea back then that I was exercising aerobically and how good this was for my heart health, fat-burning and stress levels. We didn’t have the fancy running shoes or gear back then either!
But here’s the thing – Aerobic exercise is more important for our fat-burning and cardiac health as we get older, than we are led to believe by the fitness industry.
With the emphasis on higher intensity exercise and strength training that prevails throughout the fitness industry, you would think that this is the only way to exercise, but it isn’t. Although strength training has an important role to play in our healthy ageing, so too does aerobic exercise. This is the type of exercise whereby we go slower for longer and in menopause and post-menopause, it’s great for our heart health. Now, thanks to Professor Tanaka, I have a new name for it – niko, niko exercise – smiling pace exercise.
When I began to explore why the type of exercise I was doing was no longer working for my weight management when I was transitioning menopause, I realised that over the years, being in and around the fitness industry with it’s emphasis on ‘faster, leaner, stronger’, I had actually lost touch with the physiology of fat loss through exercise. For years, the notion that ‘faster and harder is better’ was based on the fact that people didn’t have much time, so we needed shorter, harder workouts. I won’t go into the physiology, but as I used to say to students, when we don’t have time, we need to increase intensity because fat-burning occurs in the post-exercise period 3-4 hours after exercise. It’s known as EPOC or Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption. I taught this to sports and exercise science students for years. The rationale is that by working harder, you burn more fat when you are in recovery time. It’s the rationale behind HIIT training.
But here’s the thing. When you are always doing HIIT exercise and your cardiovascular system (heart and blood vessels) are changing during menopause because you are losing oestrogen, then this higher intensity exercise makes you feel more exhausted. It can also lead to sore joints and lead to post-exercise food cravings, especially, sugary, high-calorie foods! Are you one of these women? I know I was. But fueling these cravings and exhausting yourself with the wrong exercise in menopause, can also lead to worsening hot flushes, low energy, and as many women find, excess mood swings and weight gain.
You can end up in a cycle of fatigue, endless cravings, hot flushes and weight gain … so you do more high intensity exercise, to burn off the calories, and the cycle starts all over again. Sound familiar?
The word ‘aerobic’ literally means ‘with oxygen’. And oxygen transport to our heart, muscles and every cell and tissue in the body is crucial to our optimal function, especially as we transition menopause and go into the next stage of life. That’s why I love the concept of Japan’s slow jogging movement and it’s what I promote to women on the MyMT programmes as well. This includes my fabulous new Re-Build My Fitness 12 week online programme which was just released at the end of 2018. It helped Kaye get up to the top of Mt Taranaki in New Zealand!
Every day I hear from women in the MyMT community and who come into the MyMT programmes, who say that they feel that their energy has reached an all-time low, especially when they don’t sleep well during their menopause transition. This is why we need to do exercise that doesn’t exhaust our adrenals and thyroid glands further. If we do, this can be a slippery slope towards worsening immune health. It’s also why I encourage women to get back to doing longer duration aerobic exercise, not shorter duration, ‘anaerobic’ (high intensity) exercise, until they are sleeping all night – this is also why the ‘Sleep All Night’ module is the first module that women listen to on the MyMT programmes – it’s that important to our health, energy and weight management.
As I have been reflecting on what is the best exercise for us as we get older and the best exercise to help us to lose our belly-fat, I have come full circle from the days of always doing high-intensity exercise. Women’s healthy ageing research supports this too. Women on the Blue Zones healthy ageing research don’t do exhausting exercise. They stay strong and fit by working in the fields and walking in the hills.
So how can we emulate this research in our everyday lives? Well we can walk some hills or we can go to the gym and walk or jog slowly on the treadmill, or we can increase the slope of the treadmill for added glut and leg strength as we walk. It’s a great toning workout and helps to increase metabolism for fat-burning. The key is that you need to do this aerobic, endurance exercise for longer than your 10 minute warm-up! You need to do it for a minimum of 20 minutes building up to an hour. This is what is recommended for weight loss management in menopause when it comes to exercise and heart health (strength is also important as is flexibility, and I cover all of this and programmes that you can download in my Re-Build My Fitness programme. It’s got all the information you need to improve your health in menopause with exercise tailored just for this stage of life, including how to exercise ‘slow’.
[Please note, that if you aren’t sleeping, or have sore joints and muscles or need to change your menopause symptoms, then I recommend you doing my symptom reduction or weight loss programmes prior to building up your exercise – or do them both at the same time.]
I’ve come right back to the need to build our aerobic fitness first, before doing higher intensity exercise – after all, this is how athletes train as well. For women going through menopause, there’s another reason to increase our endurance or aerobic exercise too and that’s to prevent post-menopause heart disease and worsening belly-fat that can lead to Type 2 diabetes and other health problems that prevent women leading and living a life that is full of vitality as they age.
The greatest risk to women living in western countries such as New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Australia (where most of you are), is heart disease. As our blood vessels and heart muscle get older and lose oestrogen, the need to maintain optimal heart health and healthy cholesterol levels is stronger than ever. But there’s more to this story as well. Not only is heart disease a killer disease for women as they age, but so too is obesity and Type 2 diabetes. This is why exercising for cardiovascular health during menopause is so important for us as we get older.
Post-menopause, these conditions kill us too. So does stress. And every day, I hear from women who feel stressed, over-whelmed and when they aren’t sleeping, they begin to experience more anxiety too. Therefore, aerobic exercise as well as some strengthening and flexibility exercises are all good ways to shape up and de-stress in mid-life. When you exercise, your body releases feel-good hormones, such as endorphins, which can put you in a good mood for the rest of the day. That’s why I want women enjoying the right type of exercise again.
You don’t have to always go into oxygen debt and flog yourself in order to obtain great heart health and fat-burning benefits. So many women during menopause are convinced that they need to do exhausting Boot Camps and other types of high intensity work-outs. But as we lose oestrogen during menopause, these types of activity can cause greater levels of lactic acid in muscles and because our liver decreases volume as we get older and we lose muscle density (called sarcopenia), then women often end up with sore joints and aching muscles. Especially at night.
Menopause is the time of our life when we need to change how we look after ourselves, including with our exercise. That’s why I have designed the Re-Build My Fitness programme, which women are doing after they have either completed Circuit-Breaker (for thinner/ leaner women) or Transform Me (for women wanting to lose weight). Re-Build My Fitness is a 12 week programme which teaches women how to get the right exercise back into their lives so it can also be completed without doing the other programmes. The first module begins with understanding how to improve aerobic fitness – I’ve called it ‘Fitness Foundations’ and it’s got your aerobic exercise programme for you to down-load. This can be undertaken inside the gym on the treadmill or outside braving the elements, and teaches you why longer-duration aerobic exercise is necessary for our health as we age. It’s the type of exercise that makes you smile. If you want to get exercise back into your life, I hope you can join me sometime too.
[PhD/ REPs New Zealand Registered Exercise Specialist & Your MyMT Coach]
Learn more about the Re-Build My Fitness programme by listening to my 3 minute video.