MyMT™ Blog

Why the fitness industry may not have the answers for women in menopause who need to change the way they exercise.

“My sleep is now normal. The joint pain is better. I am much fitter, exercising 5-6 times a week and have lost 10kgs over the 12 weeks.”   [Raewyn]

One of the things I recommended to Raewyn, was that she changed her exercise and reduce her high-intensity exercise to start with. It’s what I do when women are transitioning through peri-menopause and aren’t sleeping. Every day I receive emails from women who have become mystified about their changing joint health and aching knees too. I always ask if they have been doing lots of high-intensity boot-camps, cross-fit classes, or other forms of impact exercise. You know, the type of exercise whereby you are placing your body under higher stress than usual or pushing very heavy resistance loads with fast movement patterns for shorter periods such as 30 minutes. It’s known globally as High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and it appeared on the 2019 ACSM Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends. It’s these trends that drive the workouts that are promoted in many health and fitness clubs around the world.

Don’t get me wrong, HIIT workouts are a wonderful way to get your exercise done and dusted in a shorter amount of time – and yes, that is a precious commodity that many of us don’t have. But when women aren’t sleeping as their hormones are changing in menopause, these types of workouts send women into ‘over-training mode’ too. They end up exhausted. Then their  joints begin to hurt and their knees ache as well. I’ve had hundreds of active women join me on the MyMT programems and when their health screening forms indicate these joint and muscle health-changes, they invariably say “yes” to doing HIIT classes, Boot Camps and Cross-fit workouts – simply because this is the type of exercise they’ve been doing for years and it’s whats promoted as ‘ggod for them’ to them too. 

But with the never-ending promotion of mainly HIIT exercise, the fitness industry may be failing women in menopause.

For over 30 years, I’ve been part of the modern fitness industry. I love the health and fitness clubs which provide the spaces and products which enable us to work-out in ways that offer us ‘time to ourselves’ and help us to ‘feel good’. The women on my PhD studies felt the same too.

But here’s the thing – if the exercise advice isn’t right for us as our hormones are changing in menopause and if we are doing heavy workouts and not sleeping, then we aren’t recovering from the training. Nor are we burning fat. You see, not all of the exercise that is taught in fitness environments is designed for healthy ageing. Much of it is designed to accommodate athletes, males and younger females who still have oestrogen!   

I have an entire module called ‘Let’s Talk Results’ in my brand new and revised Re-Build My Fitness 12 week online programme, and I have designed a range of HIIT workouts for you according to your BODY-TYPE, but women know that unless they are sleeping, then they have to ‘proceed with caution’ . When we don’t sleep, we aren’t recovering. And if we do too much high-intensity activity as we are losing oestrogen and transitioning through menopause, then we can easily head down the slippery slope to worsening cardiac health and a muscular and immune condition called fibromyalgia. 

I learnt this the hard way myself. Which is why I decided to look into the research on HIIT as part of my studies. I used to do a lot of HIIT workouts – spin classes, GRIT workouts, Cross-fit type Personal Training sessions, Interval Training – you name it, I did it. But not one workout helped me to lose weight. I also felt my sore joints getting worse, I felt exhausted, and my blood work showed that despite daily exercise, my blood pressure, cholesterol and weight were heading up, not down. I also craved sugar and sweet things all the time (and yes, high-intensity exercise makes you do this, because afterwards your brain, muscles and liver are screaming out for glucose to replace the stores of glucose (called glycogen) that have been rapidly used up in the workout.

Understanding how much our muscles and liver rely on oestrogen to work efficiently, helped me un-tangle all the messages about HIIT workouts, as did talking to mid-life women who participated in my studies into women’s healthy ageing and exercise. Most of them were doing high-intensity exercise – all the time! But their experiences were similar to mine – sore joints, feeling bloated, not shifting menopause weight and experiencing restless legs at night.

That’s why I began to look into the physiological changes that occur in our muscles, nervous system, blood vessels and heart muscle as we go into menopause in the context of the exercise that many of us have become used to. I had no idea that oestrogen was involved in so many of these organs and how we respond to exercise. No wonder I wasn’t losing weight! What’s more, I now realise that all that high-intensity exercise and NOT SLEEPING, was sending my blood sugar into orbit. Then, add in the changes that happen to our gut and liver in our menopause transition, this makes it hard to absorb the nutrients we need to recover from high-intensity workouts.

However, there was one other major factor which at the time, I didn’t understand either.


There are two ladies who attend the weekly spin class that I attend. I don’t know them apart from a warm ‘hi’ as we set up our bikes. I’ve been watching them for months now because they both look as if they are middle-aged and going through menopause. I overheard one of them discussing her weight as she prepared for her workout – she was despairing – “I don’t know why I bother to come here three times each week” she bemoaned. “All that’s happening is that I’m getting bigger and not losing weight.” Laughingly, she then said, “But it does make me feel good afterwards!”

I put my head down and adjusted the seat of the bike as the instructor arrived and the class filled up. What I really wanted to ask her was, “Are you sleeping all night?”  Because, I know from my own experience and from my women’s health research, that if we aren’t sleeping all night, then no amount of high intensity workouts, including my beloved spin classes, will help to shift the fat. In fact, as this woman has found the hard way, working hard-out all the time with our exercise when we aren’t sleeping and when we are losing oestrogen, increases our stress hormone called cortisol. Our fat stays on around our middle and over-time our joints, which are losing oestrogen too, fail to recover.  This happened to me as well. 

sore joint picture

The secret to exercise lies in how well you are recovering. This depends on two factors: 

  1. Whether you are sleeping all night.
  2. How well you are adapting your exercise to accommodate the structural changes which occur to your blood vessels in a lowering oestrogen environment as you age. In medical terms, these changes with age are known as ‘vascular stiffness’. 

For over 30 years, I have been involved in the New Zealand exercise and exercise-education industry. Like all the women on my research studies, we have been relatively active all our lives. From school sports to being the early adopters of exercise-to-music classes, to enjoying running, cycling and for many of us, triathlons as well, staying active makes us feel good. For years, it has also been the way for us to stay on top of our weight management. Until we reached peri-menopause.

I had no idea that at this time of our lives, the impact of low oestrogen would cause all sorts of chaos with our ability to burn fat, recover from exercise and tolerate high intensity exercise too. But it does. And here’s the thing. Because we are the first generation of women to come through the modern fitness and sporting industries, we tolerate exercise intensity a lot better than women who have never exercised. In fact, we love the endorphin release (our ‘happy’ brain chemicals following high-intensity exercise), so much, that when we do exercise, we typically train fairly hard. With instructors endorsing the ‘go-hard, or go-home’ motivational calls, then it’s easy to go all-out. Which is what these ladies were doing in the spin class.

But herein lies the problem. Although higher intensity exercise is known to be ‘good for us’ (and don’t get me wrong, there is very good evidence about it’s efficacy for fat-burning too), the problem for women in menopause (which most of the HIIT research studies don’t accommodate), is our lack of sleep.

When we aren’t sleeping during our menopause transition, then we aren’t recovering from all of this high-intensity exercise during our changing hormonal environment. Not sleeping leads to an increase in our stress hormone, called cortisol. When cortisol stays too high for too long, then it interferes with our sleep hormone, melatonin, as well as our blood sugar hormone, insulin. When both insulin and cortisol remain higher than they should overnight, this not only interferes with our normal fat-burning mechanisms, but we also don’t recover from our exercise. We end up in adrenal fatigue – just like an over-trained female athlete. It’s why I’m so pleased that female Personal Trainers come on board with me so that they can support their clients too. 

The other concern for active women during menopause are the changes to our blood vessels. When oestrogen is low, our blood vessels constrict more. With millions of blood vessels (capilliaries) in our muscles and liver, high intensity exercise makes them work harder to remove lactic acid (the waste component of vigorous exercise). When our blood vessels lose elasticity (as they do with ageing), then our tolerance for lactate removal after exercise is slower as well. It’s why many women (as happened to me too) may experience aching legs and muscles after participating in high intensity exercise, and this feeling can stay around for hours afterwards. But that’s not the ‘after-burn’ that we want! The slower lactate removal combined with not sleeping means that our thyroid metabolism can change to try and compensate. Many exercising women then report more hot flushes because post-exercise blood pressure and heart rate remain higher than they should. The result of all this? Higher levels of cortisol and more blood sugar chaos, more food and sugar cravings and less sleep. It all becomes an endless catch-22.

In both of the 12 week MyMT programmes, your SLEEP ALL NIGHT module is the first one that you listen to. It’s that important to our heart health too.

So, what should we do?

Well, as I say to women on my programmes who are active gym-junkies or do a lot of sports or running. There is one rule –

“If you aren’t sleeping, then you aren’t recovering and you aren’t fat-burning. So lower the intensity of your workouts until you sleep all night again.” 

Otherwise, as I explain to them, your metabolism changes, your body is ‘stressed’ and your muscles hold onto inflammation. When this happens to women, then cortisol levels stay high and we hold onto our fat stores and our progesterone levels crash too. When our body is under stress, our ancient, evolutionary ‘survival mechanism’ kicks in to hold onto fat. 

It’s also why I say that aerobic exercise of moderate intensity is the best cardio exercise to do as we are transitioning into and through menopause when we can’t sleep all night. Yoga and resisted stretching for toning and breathing purposes are important as well. Once we are sleeping again, we can add in 1-2 higher-intensity sessions per week to improve our fitness. I have how to achieve this progressively and safely in my 12 week online Rebuild My Fitness programmes. 

 The best thing is that I’ve designed the programmes to match your Body-Type, which is really important for you as you age too. I can’t wait to share them with you.

Because NOVEMBER is EXERCISE month at MyMT, this revised Rebuild My Fitness programme is ready and waiting for you for at NZ$349 (approx. AUS$317, US$206 or UK£165). Monthly payments are available. On January 1st,  2020, the price goes up to $399. So, please get in whilst you can. It’s all online and you can do it in your own time with my coaching support.

However, if you are still struggling with your sleep, your hot flushes, your sore joints, weight gain and other symptoms, then would you let me help you? You might want to start with my 12 week menopause weight loss programme called  ‘Transform Me’ or my symptom reduction programme for thinner/ leaner women called ‘Circuit-Breaker’. Both programmes are changing women’s lives as they discover how to manage their menopause transition using powerful lifestyle solutions. Many do these programmes first and then go on and do the ‘Re-Build My Fitness’ programme, which then helps them get their fitness and strength back again. 

Our menopause transition is a time of incredible change in our muscle structure, cardiac muscle, liver, gut, sleep hormones and more. This has an impact on how we tolerate exercise as well as how we manage our symptoms, including weight loss.  

I hope that you can join me on either of my 3 programmes – ‘Transform Me’ for your menopause weight loss, or Circuit-Breaker for your menopause symptom management or my newly updated ‘ReBuild My Fitness’ if you want to enjoy improved menopause fitness or get back into more activity as you age.

Wendy Sweet, B.PhysEd/ PhD.

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