Yesterday, I went swimming for my workout. I did a few lengths of overarm and then a few lengths of butterfly. Yes, butterfly! Each time I hit the end of the pool, I was breathing deeply with effort. But that’s the effect I needed. You see, I wanted to expand my lungs – get them working harder, so I could stimulate them to fill up with air and get the small intercostal muscles that sit between our rib cages contracting as well. When I had finished I stood at the end of the pool and took more deep breaths to recover as I did my stretching.
Why was this important to me? I’ll tell you why …
The announcement today from the World Health Organisation, that the Covid19 outbreak is now being classed as a pandemic, not only sent me off to the pool today, but I also wanted to write this article for you. I wanted you to know that because this ruthless virus assaults the respiratory system, women going through menopause or those of you in post-menopause need to be vigilant. Because if for some reason you become infectious, your changing lungs as you move through menopause, may challenge your ability to recover.
A number of studies now recognise that lung function declines more rapidly among women who are transitioning through menopause and into post-menopause – in particular for Forced Vital Capacity [FVC], which is the total amount of air exhaled in one breathe. I think many women feel that their lung function is changing as the lose oestrogen as I felt too. In an email to me, Diane was the same.
“I didn’t sleep well last night. It seemed as if I struggled to breathe and I could feel my heart racing as well. The Doctor can’t find anything wrong and I feel exhausted. I know it’s something to do with menopause, so I’m wondering if your programme will help me. I saw it featured in the Daily Mail last month.” [Diane, United Kingdom].
The emails I receive every week feel like deja vu. I used to lie in bed and feel that my breathing was a bit out of sync too. Whilst increased anxiety can throw our breathing out of sync in menopause, I personally felt that I wasn’t able to breathe in deeply enough to fill my lungs. I also felt I had more phlegm building up overnight.
Once again I trotted off to my long-suffering Doctor. We did lung function tests (normal), she took my blood pressure (a bit high) and nothing seemed wrong with my heart. I was already on menopause HRT but it didn’t seem to be making the difference to all the symptoms that were arriving in my early 50’s. The list of symptoms making me feel miserable and defeated were growing by the week and feeling a bit breathless, even at rest, was one of them.
Insomnia, sore joints, weight gain, emotional ups and downs, heart palpitations and now my lungs. Who knew that our lungs are affected by lowering oestrogen too? I certainly didn’t.
I never gave my lung function a thought when I went into menopause. For decades I’ve been a regular exerciser and one of the known benefits of regular exercise is that it stimulates our breathing. But when I began to experience more breathlessness in my early 50’s, especially during all the high intensity exercise that is promoted to us, I began to get more curious about my lung function and the connection to menopause.
One of the very first studies to investigate the effect of menopause on lung function in a large population-based survey was undertaken by researchers with support from the Norwegian Research Council. It’s known as the European Community Respiratory Health Survey and has been going on for a number of years and has only recently followed up with women transitioning through menopause. I’d like to thank them for including nearly 2000 menopausal women and testing them. Because as you can see from the graph below, yes indeed, our lung function declines as we age. Some of you girls’ doing high intensity exercise or endurance exercise might already realise this too if your performance has been dropping off a bit.
As we biologically age, our body is changing. That’s why positioning menopause in ageing science has changed not only how I look after myself, but has enabled me to set up My Menopause Transformation – two different 12 week programmes which are changing women’s lives in menopause. There’s also a 12 week exercise programme called ‘Rebuild My Fitness’ which helps beginner and intermediate women understand the changes going on in the body during menopause and the type of exercise they need to do to counteract the effects of losing oestrogen. One of the strategies that I teach them is to improve their breathing and lung function. That’s because researchers have discovered that the lungs play a far more complex role in mammalian bodies than previously thought, especially in middle-age females.
It seems that our lovely lungs don’t just facilitate respiration – they also play a key role in red blood cell production and platelet function, along with bone marrow. They also contain oestrogen receptors too. This means that our lungs are also affected as we move through menopause. But the real issue is our ageing.
I always explain to women that our menopause transition is heralding in a number of changes in tissue structure and function which are related to ageing (although we still feel young, our body is changing with age). One of these age-related changes is how our lungs age as well. As we get older, lung function declines. This means that we have to purposefully focus on deep breathing every day.
Lung function reduces with age so we must work hard to expand our lungs and breathe more efficiently - especially in exercise.
There is another cause for poor lung function in mid-life as well.
Many women work in sedentary jobs, hence lung function may also change when we sit hunched over computers or we are sitting at desks throughout our day. If we also have the dreaded fat-roll under the diaphragm as I used to, then this impacts on our breathing too. Sitting all day prevents your lungs from performing to their best. When we sit, our back is rounded, and the anterior, or front thoracic cage shortens and becomes a bit squashed. This means that the tiny intercostal muscles in between each rib cage are not able to do their job properly. They are muscles and therefore become weaker. These smaller rib-cage muscles lose oestrogen too, so as we transition through menopause, they don’t function as well as they used to in expanding our rib cage and lungs with each breath. Over time, this can contribute to loss of lung capacity and cardio-respiratory fitness.
If this is you today, then can you focus on standing up every hour, pulling your tummy muscles in tight and lifting your arms above your head and really getting some function in those ageing lungs of yours? You can even go somewhere quiet in your break or this evening, and try this stretch in the image below. It’s from the stretching programme I have in the Rebuild My Fitness 12 week programme, This programme is designed for women to get back into exercising again or to understand the best exercise for them in mid-life.
[The video is at the end of this blog and I explain what’s in the Rebuild My Fitness 12 week programme].
The role of the lungs and how they contribute to our circulation and more importantly, tissue oxygenation and energy levels, is more powerful than previously thought. And not only is this important for our ageing lungs, but also for losing fat too.
When I was trying to lose my menopause belly fat, I began to focus on the physiology that I had taught students for years, and that is that when it comes to tissue oxygenation and fat-loss, our breathing matters. Fat is ‘burned’ in our lovely mitochondrial cells and this is where oxygen is stored. Having an efficient respiratory system is fundamental to moving oxygen in and out of our mitochondrial cells. Your breathing, stretching and cardio-respiratory fitness is as important as it ever was as we go through menopause – even despite the Corona-virus.
When we focus on our breathing techniques, we also improve fat loss. For women with lots of belly fat and diaphragmatic fat, lung expansion can be reduced up to 40%, because of the location of our fat gain in menopause.
I’m always talking about our lovely mitochondrial cells in my coaching groups. These cells store oxygen. Located deep inside our muscles, lungs and heart, mitochondrial cells are the ‘power-house’ of your cell, because this is where fats and glucose are turned into energy.
If we can breathe better, then the exchange of oxygen is enhanced into these mitochondrial cells. This is important in the lungs because one of the factors that contributes to the effectiveness of our breathing are the small intercostal muscles that lie between your rib-cage. These muscles are losing elastin and collagen fibres as our oestrogen declines, so they need to be stimulated and stretched. Especially, when we are sitting most of the day. Some of you might even like to do this stretch over a swiss ball if you attend a gym or have an exercise ball like this at home. I do this stretch most days.
If you are hunched over a desk all day or you are in a job that is always making you bend forward (e.g. housekeeping or nursing jobs) then those lovely muscle fibres between your ribs (your intercostal muscle fibres) become lengthened at the back and constricted at the front. When they are constricted at the front, your lungs don’t fill up as effectively as they should as we move through menopause. As such we may find it more difficult to lose our belly fat. It’s another reason that deep-breathing is important as we age.
In the MyMT™ ‘Transform Me’ programme, I have lots of information for women wanting to lose their belly fat. Yes, this includes information about how to improve breathing. When we move more oxygen into mitochondrial cells this means that fat-burning mechanisms are improved too.
In this day and age of continued emphasis on high intensity activity, we are often forgetting about the role of aerobic exercise and deep breathing. This is something I talk about a lot in my programmes. Exercise which regulates your breathing is important. Not only for your fitness and to boost your immune system, but also to expand your ageing lungs. Aerobic, endurance exercise is needed for improved mental health, cardiac health and respiratory health as we age. With aerobic training, we also build up our lung function capability too. Nice steady-state breathing that helps to boost our immune health and our energy levels too. When we do rhythmic activities and these activities are not too intense, then we get more OXYGEN into our lungs and we feel more energised.
We also improve our fitness. It’s why I love promoting more swimming to MyMT™ members and it’s why, with the threat of Corona-virus changing our world, I went for my swim today too.
If you are mainly sedentary in your working week, then it would be great if you made a plan to do some aerobic, steady-state exercise over the weekend and focus on your deep breathing. Breathing better is something that we all need to do more of. With the global reach of the Coronavirus, then you also need to boost your immunity and watch your Vitamin D levels – these can decline during our menopause transition as well.
Have a wonderful weekend and I’m always at the end of the email if you have questions about the programmes and how they might help you [firstname.lastname@example.org].
If you are struggling with exercise and your cardio-respiratory fitness, then when you have time, have a listen to the video below. It’s about the Rebuild My Fitness 12 week online programme, where you get my 30 years of knowledge and experience as you improve your fitness, strength, balance and flexibility during or after menopause. With many gyms being designated as high-risk facilities during the Coroanvirus outbreak, you can do it all online in the comfort of your home, so no gym visits if you don’t want to [although there are programmes you can download to take to the gym as well].
The Rebuild My Fitness programme is 3 months long and there are payments of NZ$99 / Aus$92 or UK£48 per month for 3 months – or pay in full at NZ$299/AUS$279 or UK£145. [It’s the same price for my other programmes as well unless you have a valid promo code].
When you visit your private member learning hub, you listen to my webinars, download my exercise plans, view my 40 minute strength workouts which are Body-Type specific and discover the power of exercising for pleasure and your health, not athletic performance.
And yes, you learn all those important breathing exercises too.
Sharma, G. & Goodwin, J. (2006). Effect of aging on respiratory system physiology and immunology. Clinical Interventions in Aging, 1(3) 253–260
Triebner, K., Matulonga, B. Johannessen, A. et al., (2016). Menopause is associated with accelerated lung function decline. American J of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, Vol 195(8), pp. 1058-1065.