Over the past couple of years I’ve had the privilege of talking to hundreds of women throughout New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom when I’ve taken my live Masterclass on Menopause seminar. [I’ve now put this online for you]. I often ask them if they feel like their energy levels have dropped since they went into menopause. I’m not surprised when a lot of hands go up in the room but there’s a lot of surprise on their faces as they look around and see that they aren’t alone.
Why do we feel so exhausted when we reach mid-life?
This is the question I asked myself, when my usual high energy levels left me, and every day I would wake up feeling exhausted. We all know that when we feel like this, it’s hard to get through our day.
Energy is not an inexhaustible resource. Every day it needs to be topped up and overnight our energy levels need to be renewed. This occurs in our mighty mitochondria – the organelles in every cell in your body, which is where your energy molecule, Adenine Triphosphate (ATP) is produced from the breakdown of fats and glucose, in the presence of oxygen which is stored in your mitochondria. But there’s a couple of problems.
Firstly, they rely on oestrogen for optimal function and secondly, they change in size and density as we move through menopause. This means as maternally-inherited cells, not only can you thank your mum for all those beautiful cells that help your energy, but as we age, we need to give these powerful cells a bit of a hand to produce more energy to help us get through all that we have to do in our day.
There are incredible changes to many of our organs, including our muscles and mitochondrial cells as we move through menopause.
Your mitochondria are commonly known as the power-house of your cells. This is because energy in the form of Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) is made in the presence of the oxygen that is stored within the mitochondria. During our menopause transition however, the mitochondria can become less efficient. You see, thanks to your mother, these cells depend on the role of oestrogen and because we are losing oestrogen in menopause, energy production in the mitochondria is reduced. Therefore, it’s no surprise that many of us find that our energy levels plummet and our mighty mitochondria aren’t so mighty afterall when we arrive in this stage of life.
For so many of us, fatigue accumulates, our muscles ache and we find we can’t do everything that we want to get done in our day. If you are a regular exerciser, you might be wondering why your heart rate is higher than normal and your recovery is slower than usual too.
That’s why some of you might need to help your mitochondrial cells become mighty again. You achieve this not only through restoring your sleep, but looking at the food and exercise choices you make during your week.
When my own fatigue was frustrating me in peri-menopause, I didn’t realise that the decline of oestrogen was affecting my lovely mitochondrial cells deep in my muscles – including my cardiac muscle. Oestrogens affect mitochondria through multiple processes, not only in the membrane of the mitochondria, but also within it too. The effects of oestrogens on mitochondria help them to uptake oxygen and store it, as well as assisting with calcium turnover and protein use in the body.
With our energy supply and cell survival dependent on the mitochondrial life cycle, as we move through menopause and beyond, it’s more important than ever to improve the function, dynamics and the number of our mitochondria as we age.
I have loads of tips for turning around energy levels in my 12 week programmes, but one of the things that I suggest to women, is to choose exercise that helps the mitochondrial cells to multiply and enlarge. With larger mitochondrial cells and more of them, oxygen storage is enhanced too. The consequence of this is that, the more oxygen you store in mitochondrial cells, the more fats you burn for weight loss and the more energy you have to get through your day.
If you were to look at all the exercise marketing from the fitness industry today, you would see so much consumer choice.
This is fabulous obviously, but sometimes, these choices get a bit lost in translation, especially when it comes to the right exercise that helps us in menopause. There’s still a lot of emphasis on body-toning, strength and conditioning (bodyweight or weights) and of course, high intensity exercise. There’s also a lot of yoga and pilates being promoted too. Whilst ALL of these forms of activity are important in one way or another, one of the main missing ingredients for women who are moving through menopause, is doing the type of exercise that increases mitochondrial size, number and function.
The type of exercise that achieves this is ‘aerobic’ exercise and around 1-2 sessions of muscle strengthening activities a week.
Every day we use up millions of ATP-Energy molecules which are made by our mitochondria. This depends on how active we are, how stressed we feel, our background of muscle inflammation from participation in too much exercise or through a heavy, physical job over the years. When we use up ATP, it needs to be regenerated again in our mitochondria. It makes sense that as we age, the more mitochondrial cells we have, the more energy we have. And the more energy we have, the healthier we feel.
The other reason I want you thinking about aerobic exercise (the type that can be sustained for up to 60 minutes or longer), is because of your precious heart. We tend to forget that our heart is a muscle and it is ageing too. But most importantly, this powerful pump contains lots of mitochondrial cells, which need oxygen turn-over.
Energy consumption is extremely high in the heart where mitochondria provide more than 90% of the energy needed for contraction and cell pumps. It’s why those of you who are participating in lots of higher-intensity exercise, or you have a physically demanding job, must find the time to put your feet up and REST! Your heart needs to recover. Conversely, those of you who have lots of rest and a sedentary job, need to do some cardio-vascular exercise, to stimulate your heart muscle to turn-over mitochondrial cells and make them larger for storing more oxygen.
This is why, for women who join me on my programmes, I’m always trying to challenge them on their exercise type and intensity – many are doing too much, but as they haven’t sorted out their other health issues first, including sleep, it’s best to cut-back on exercise.
Some of you may be doing too much heavy activity and not recovering well and therefore, feeling burnt out. I include your physical job in this, not just your exercise. But others of you might not be doing enough exercise to turn over mitochondrial cells and increase the storage of oxygen in them. When we boost our oxygen storage then we have more energy in the form of ATP to supply to organs and our brain.
That’s why the foundation of exercise for health is AEROBIC exercise. It’s the ‘forgotten factor’ in the exercise conundrum. There has been so much emphasis on different forms of exercise available to us, from Pump classes to SPIN classes to YOGA, PILATES and even PRIMAL FLOW (move like the animal that you are), but our loss of oestrogen means that we need aerobic exercise too. This is our STARTING POINT for improving our health and fitness as we age.
To stimulate more mitochondrial cells and improve their oxygen storage capacity, we need to firstly, improve our aerobic fitness (this takes around 4-6 weeks) and then secondly, add on some higher intensity activity, when we feel ready. This is a little bit of harder exercise and I talk about this in the Rebuild My Fitness programme, which many women come into once they have completed either the symptom-reduction programme or the weight loss programme.
Even if time is your enemy during the week, then can you make time to do a longer aerobic endurance cardio workout over the weekend? You can walk, swim, cycle, dance, row, hike …. whatever takes your fancy. But what you have to do is get your heart rate up to a moderate level, regulate your breathing and keep going!
As we improve our aerobic fitness and help our body to make more mitochondrial cells, then we can build on this effort with a bit more intensity further down the road (after 4 weeks or so), and of course, after our sleep and energy levels have returned and our joints aren’t hurting either (my Joint Restoration module is available for you as a stand-alone module too).
Exercise is a wonderful anti-ageing medicine for all of us, but sometimes when there is too much or too little, we need to reflect on why this is and make the changes that will help us feel better with age. When it comes to energy production, the beautiful mitochondrial cells that are housed in our muscles, matter. Skeletal muscle accounts for approximately 40% of total body mass, and it plays an indispensable role in our movement, metabolism and even our immunity.
It’s easy to slip into more health problems when our energy levels are at rock-bottom. For many women, this means auto-immune concerns such as frequent colds and flu, or even fibromyalgia. It’s why I also say that when women aren’t sleeping and experiencing more joint pain and muscle soreness in mid-life, they need to back off the higher-intensity exercise, until they have turned around their symptoms in menopause. We need to be careful about the type and amount of exercise we do at a time when our hormones are changing.
Women’s physical activity participation research in Australia, New Zealand, America and the United Kingdom, consistently reports that women in their 50’s are the highest cohort to drop out of activity. [The other highest cohort is girls going through puberty – so go figure that one … hormonal changes anyone?!].
As the first generation of women to come into menopause in the context of the modern fitness industry, there are also many women who have arrived in menopause who may well be doing too much exercise and subsequently their mitochondrial cells aren’t coping.
This happened to me and I’m wondering if this is your experience too? I know that this is the same for lots of women in the MyMT™ programme who have been regular exercisers for decades. But here’s the thing. Whether you are doing too much or too little exercise in mid-life, both these ends of the spectrum have a powerful effect on your energy levels and can leave you feeling more exhausted than usual. With everything else going on in our lives, it’s not long before we feel stressed and burnt out.
If you are feeling exhausted then you need to love your beautiful mitochondria.
Without properly functioning mitochondria, we lose life-giving energy and our body struggles to maintain optimal levels of health. And as we transition through menopause our mitochondria are ageing too.
Restoring our energy requires learning how to look after ourselves differently in our mid-life years. Our hormonal environment is changing and we need to reduce the inflammation in our liver, heart, muscles and mitochondria that is tipping us over into more exhaustion. If we don’t do this, then we can’t live the life that we want to. We feel too exhausted! The good news is that we can turn around our mitochondrial health and therefore, our energy levels as we go through menopause. Thousands of women who join me on the MyMT™ programmes now understand this too.
In the symptom reduction programme called MyMT Circuit Breaker programme or the MyMT Transform Me weight loss programme, (and I have the Rebuild My Fitness online exercise programme too), I help women have a re-focus on renewing their mitochondrial health which includes learning to sleep all night, restore liver health, reduce hot flushes (heat damages our mitochondria too) and change our nurition to better match our nutrient needs for menopause. All this has been researched through my women’s healthy ageing studies.
When I discovered through my studies, the power of turning around mitochondrial health for improved health and energy as we age, I made so many changes to my day-to-day lifestyle, that made such a difference to my overall health – this included changing the type and timing of food to better support energy requirements (Carbohydrates give us energy), changing up the type and amount of exercise I was doing and of course, sleeping all night and managing stress. I love this photo of Heather – she used to feel so tired and now feels like she has her life and energy levels back
Bennett, S. (2016). Mighty Mito: Power up your mitochondria for boundless energy.
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Tarp, J. Stole, A. et al. (2019). Cardiorespiratory fitness, muscular strength and risk of Type 2 diabetes: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Diabetologia Online, pp. 1-14.
Wilmore, J., Costill, D. & Kenny, L. (2008). Physiology of sport and exercise. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publ.