Winter is arriving down-under and if you have been following my newsletters for a while (thank you) then you will know that we are a family of skiers. My son skis competitively, so I have enjoyed watching him compete for years. That’s until menopause arrived. I had no idea how much the strength and power in my normally strong leg muscles would affect me and how my joints would become so sore as well. I felt my future dreams of staying active as I aged fading away and it’s what drove me to un-tangle our joint health and muscle changes during our menopause transition. If this is you as well, then have a read of my article below.
It’s a tough old world out there currently but as New Zealand moves down the alert levels, the ski-fields are allowed to open. That’s why I’ve been having a little focus on some leg strength with hill cycling (loved the quieter roads when we were in complete lockdown!), some core work and more importantly, my recovery after exercise. In the past, with lack of time always the excuse for only having a quick stretch in the shower, I now ensure that some time spent stretching and reducing inflammation after a harder workout, is as important as the workout is itself. The women in my 12 week Rebuild My Fitness programmes understand this now too.
When you’ve been enjoying family activities for decades, such as we do, it’s hard to understand why you can’t keep up. That was me a few years ago. And it was the same for another skier on my programme, Tracey. Neither of us understood that our muscles would change so much as we moved through menopause. Especially the muscle fibres, that are recruited when we do harder, faster exercise such as skiing – . our power-fibres. When I did a post about this in the coaching groups and talked about how we need to adjust our exercise AND how we manage our recovery to accommodate our ageing in order to shape our future years, Tracy sent me this photo of her in Japan last season. She manages a ski-lodge there and didn’t understand why her aches and pains stayed with her after a hard day on the slopes, when this never used to happen. How excited does she look after turning this around? – not with exercise, but with an additional focus on recovery.
This involved more stretching, higher levels of Vitamin C in her diet (which helps to renew collagen) and the powerful effect of vascular-enhancing nutrients in beetroot and celery help too. The nitric oxide compounds in vegetables such as beetroot (beets) and celery, help to support the dilation of blood vessels, which lose their elasticity as we move through menopause and lose the powerful dilatory effects of oestrogen.
Our Type 2 power fibres decrease in size as we lose oestrogen:
The men in my life can ski more powerfully than me because they still have their Type-2 muscle fibres – the fibres that enable power, speed and jumping. But thse are the first muscle fibres to decrease in size and structure as we move through menopause. You see, along with the loss of oestrogen in menopause, Type 2 power and speed muscle fibres diminish the fastest. It’s why many of you see your muscle tone and size decrease with age. So, when hubbie wants to go one way down the slope powering through the powder and the bumps (mogels), I take a different turn and head out onto the groomed piste to work my legs a different way.
It took me a long time to figure out why I wasn’t able to do the harder, more powerful skiing that I used to be able to do. But as soon as I looked at menopause through the lens of our biological ageing, I knew I would find the answer when I better understood what happens to our muscles as we age.
Ageing has become an important topic for scientific research, including muscular and strength research because life expectancy and the number of men and women in older age groups have increased dramatically in the last century.
Muscle strength and function is an increasingly important topic in exercise science, because by 2050, the world’s population over 60 years will double from about 11% to 22%. This means that there will be 2 billion people aged 60 or older living on this planet. Approximately 400 million will be 80 years or older, over half of them women. Understanding how much your muscle strength and function change as you age matters.
With another 20-30 years of living ahead of us, I’m passionate about telling mid-life women that it’s not too late to start building strength and getting fitter in preparation for our healthy ageing! And no, you don’t have to join a gym or do all of the intense, tougher workouts that seem to be marketed to us. In fact, if you aren’t sleeping, then these tougher workouts can make your hot flushes worse because you can’t recover properly overnight.
As we go through menopause and into post-menopause, one of the most important issues to address and prevent is the progressive decline in our muscle function, balance and strength.
Whilst a muscle wasting condition called Sarcopenia is partly responsible for the decline in strength as we age it’s not the only thing we need to be aware of. There are other changes to muscles and as I have discovered with my skiing, these changes relate to the progressive loss of muscle mass and force-generating capacity of our Type-2 skeletal muscles.
How this happens is better understood when we look more deeply at the cellular and molecular levels of muscles.
Women’s muscle fibres comprise different ratios of fibres compared to males. There are two general types of fibres – slow twitch and fast twitch. Slow twitch fibres are our endurance fibres and are known in muscle physiology terminology as ‘Type 1’ fibres. Fast twitch fibres are our power and speed fibres and these are known as ‘Type 2’ fibres.
Losing oestrogen means that we lose Type-2 muscle fibres faster than Type-1 fibres.
It’s why many of us lose our ability to jump and turn as quickly as we used to. Especially those of you who are skiers or who enjoy your sports or fitness activities which involve faster movements, jumping, turning or sprint-like movements. It’s why, when you do the wrong exercise during menopause, it can make many of your symptoms worse.
As we transition through menopause and we biologically age and go into our next life-stage, there is a 30-40% decline in muscle fibre number and size. I think many of us notice the loss of tone don’t we?
For women used to being active, this is important to note because this reduction in muscle fibre number and size is fibre type specific. We can lose anywhere between 10%–40% of our smaller Type-2 fibres and as I said earlier, this loss in these fibres, means that we also lose our power and speed fibres more than the Type 1 fibres that help us with our stamina and endurance. It’s possibly the reason that many physical activity studies looking at older women’s exercise participation reports that walking (not running, jumping or sprinting) is the most popular activity as they age. Furthermore, women in their 50’s are also the highest cohort to drop out of activity as they age and I’m not surprised that lack of energy, lack of time and lack of motivation are often cited as reasons to their decreasing participation. [Women’s Midlife Health, 2015]
But there’s more to understand about our muscle function as we go through menopause too. And it’s to do with our beautiful mitochondria.
I talk a lot about mitochondria in my 12 week Re-Build My Fitness programme. Mitochondria are so important to preserve as we get older. These are the small organelles that sit within muscle fibres where oxygen is stored. They are the site where fats are burned and our energy (ATP) is made. So, for those of you who are wanting to return to levels of fitness or physical activity that enable you to enjoy an enhanced and functional ageing, or you need to boost your metabolism and lose weight, then you need to boost the function of your mitochondrial cells.
Looking after our mighty Mitochondria matters so much as we go through menopause, especially if you want to manage your weight – and it’s why in my 12 week weight loss programme, I have a module called ‘Fitness Foundations‘ – this teaches women how to improve their aerobic exercise as they are going through menopause, so that they improve energy, weight loss and set up a great foundation for their cardiovascular health as they age.
As I discovered myself, the type of exercise you do during and after menopause is crucial to get right – and too many women may well be trying to do the wrong type of exercise which, when they aren’t sleeping, leaves them feeling exhausted. teh combination of not sleeping and doing too much vigorous exercise, can also increase the chronic stress hormone , cortisol. Higher levels of cortisol as we move through menopause can send our symptoms, including hot flushes, anxiety levels and accumulation of belly-fat, into chaos. Hence, it’s important to be sleeping before you do too much vigorous exercise.
But there’s more to the mitochondrial story too.
Researchers are finding that when it comes to our metabolism, energy production, immune health repair and regeneration, our tiny mitochondria matter. And the problem is, that as we move through menopause and age, we are losing muscle. When we lose muscle, we also lose our powerful little mitochondria. It’s no wonder, millions of women end up with immune health concerns as the age.
The natural death of our mitochondria has been postulated as one of the mechanisms associated with muscle fibre loss with ageing.* In other words, we need to retain our mitochondria in muscle cells to help to prevent muscular weakness and loss of function as we get older.
For those of you, like me, who also want to retain your ability to enjoy physical recreational activities such as skiing or running, then you need to sleep well, improve your liver and gut health (this is so you absorb the nutrients that your muscles need to heal and repair overnight) and do the correct exercise that helps you to not only prevent muscle loss which in turn, helps you to prevent your mitochondria loss too.
One way to achieve this, is to improve your energy and motivation for exercise as well as make the time to do it!
A lack of exercise decreases the efficiency and number of mitochondria in skeletal muscle, while exercise promotes mitochondrial health. So, if you want to retain some of your power and strength fibres (Type-2 fibres) as well as improve your Type 1 endurance fibres, then a combination of aerobic endurance and strength/ resistance exercises matter.
Mixing up the variety of exercise that you do is important as we get older. This is because different types of exercise can trigger variable but specific responses in the muscle. For example, the most important activity to do for improving mitochondrial function is actually steady-state aerobic exercise. This is also important for fat-burning. Steady-state aerobic exercise is the type of exercise which you can do rhythmically for 30-60 minutes. Strength training is also important as we age and is important for building or retaining the muscle that you do have. Then, once you are sleeping and have restored your energy levels, doing a little bit of high intensity interval training [HIIT] within aerobic exercises such as cycling and walking also has a positive effect at the cellular level at combating age-related muscle loss and weakness. This is why the 12 week Rebuild My Fitness programme takes you through a progressive improvement in your fitness levels over the 12 weeks (or longer) – I have my video for you below.
I love this photo that Ginni shared to women on the programme and now shares here with you. Like me, she’s been an avid exerciser all her life, but sore joints, muscles and exhaustion meant that she couldn’t do the exercise she loved to do as she came through menopause. I was so pleased that she came into the Re-Build My Fitness programme after doing the Transform Me weight loss programme, because now she understands how much our muscles, tendons and joints change as we come through this stage of life.
It’s a different plan that we need for our fitness as we age, including getting back to doing lower intensity aerobic exercise – not all the high intensity exercise that we have been used to doing for years. Ginni’s now back doing the cycling and swimming she loves to do. But as I said to Ginni as I do to all the hundreds of women in my programmes – “if you aren’t sleeping and your joints are sore, or you are overweight, then before doing any High Intensity Interval Training, we need to deal with these other issues first”. This is also why I have my ‘Restore your Joyful Joints module [this is now available as a stand-alone module for you as well].
When we get back into exercise as we go through menopause, this has an incredible influence on muscle health as we get older. Not only does exercise improve the number and size of mitochondria in skeletal muscle, but exercise improves nerve transmission as well as the exchange of calcium between nerves and muscles.
Not many women understand that this is why calcium is a really important mineral as we get older. Calcium helps nerves to ‘jump’ their messages across into muscles and this helps to improve our muscle speed, strength, balance and reaction time. All important functions of muscles as we get older and it’s also why I have a specific emphasis on calcium in my nutritional information for women on the MyMT™programmes – it matters not only for bone health, but optimal calcium levels are crucial for our muscles to contract effectively.
Age-related muscle loss and weakness is a combination of all of these factors, but more and more research is showing that muscle and mitochondria can be re-trained and retained through exercise. Active elderly people have more of these mitochondrial cells than more-sedentary individuals do. This is also the reason why exercise prior to hip and knee surgery can speed up recovery in the elderly too.
The good news for women is that exercise can stave off and even reverse muscle loss and weakness with age. Physical activity can promote mitochondrial health, increase protein turnover in muscles, thus aiding repair, and staying active restores nerve signaling involved in muscle contraction and function. And for many of you who don’t have the time to exercise, you don’t need to do as much as what was once thought – 30-60 minutes around 4 times a week is enough to help you age healthily.
When I felt too exhausted to do the exercise that I loved to do and it was no longer helping my weight management, I was so pleased that I had undertaken my doctoral studies on women’s healthy ageing.
It lead me down the path towards better understanding about how our body changes when we don’t have the production of oestrogen and progesterone any more. The effect of losing these two hormones on our muscles, tendons and joints as well as our heart is more important that we’ve known in the past. But as the first generation of women to be enjoying exercise and sports right into our menopause years, I also began to understand that everything that is being taught to exercise professionals in many exercise and sports courses has to date, been targeted towards younger populations, athletes and males. Very little is taught about exercise that is specifically aimed at women’s hormonal health, especially in menopause. I realised that this is because women in their 50’s today, are the first generation to have aged alongside the modern fitness industry, so exercise prescription messages (and research) are lacking.
This is why I designed and developed the 12 week online Re-Build My Fitness Programme. There’s never been a better time to focus on our health as we get older, and over the lock-down period, all my programmes are on sale for you with NZ$100 off. With savings of $100 for you, this makes it only NZ$199 (monthly payments for 3 months are available too). I explain all about it in the video below. If you are keen to come on board on any of the programmes (offer ends soon), then please enter the PROMO code, ATHOME20 into the Learn More button below which takes you to my website and there is a description of the programmes.
Wendy Sweet, PhD/ REPs NZ Exercise Professional/ Member: Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine.
Brunner, F., Schmidt et.al. (2007). Effects of aging on Type II muscle fibers: a systematic review of the literature. Journal of Ageing & Physical Activity, July;15(3):336-48.
Butler-Browne, G., Mouly V., et al, (2018). How Muscles Age, and How Exercise Can Slow It. The Scientist Online Edition.
Pierre, T. & Pizzo, P. (2018). The Ageing Mitochondria, Genes, 9, 22; doi:10.3390/genes9010022