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Navigating Menopause with The Power of Pilates

Menopause is a natural phase in every woman's life, marking the end of her reproductive years. This transition, typically occurring between the ages of 45 and 55, can bring a variety of physical and emotional changes. While it's an entirely natural process, menopause often presents uncomfortable symptoms, such as hot flashes, mood swings, and weight gain, which can significantly impact a woman's quality of life. The good news is that exercise, particularly Pilates, can be a game-changer during this transformative phase.

Menopausal lady exercising

Understanding Menopause

Before we delve into how exercise, specifically Pilates, can benefit women during menopause, it's essential to understand the basics of this life stage. Menopause is defined as the moment when a woman has gone without a menstrual period for 12 consecutive months caused by hormonal changes, marking the end of her reproductive capacity. However, the period leading up to menopause, known as perimenopause, can begin several years earlier and is often accompanied by various symptoms. Remember all women experience menopause differently but there are some common symptoms that many women may notice with their changing bodies.

Common Symptoms of Menopause:

  • Hot Flashes: Sudden, intense feelings of heat, often accompanied by sweating and flushed skin.

  • Changes in Skin & Hair Condition: Dryness, itchiness, increased oil production, and the onset of adult acne. Also hair loss or hair thinning.

  • Mood Swings: Hormonal fluctuations can lead to mood swings, irritability, and even depression.

  • Weight Gain: Changes in hormone levels can affect metabolism and lead to weight gain, particularly around the abdomen.

  • Bone Density Loss: The decline in estrogen levels can result in decreased bone density, increasing the risk of osteoporosis.

  • Muscle Loss: Changes in hormones can also contribute to muscle loss and a decrease in muscle tone.

  • Sleep Disturbances: Many women experience sleep disruptions and insomnia during menopause.

  • Joint Pain: Hormonal changes can lead to joint pain and increased susceptibility to conditions like arthritis.

How Pilates Can Help

Exercise, particularly Pilates, offers numerous benefits that can alleviate many of the challenges women face during menopause. Pilates is a low-impact, whole-body exercise method that focuses on strengthening the core, improving flexibility, and enhancing overall body awareness.

A study from the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Pt. J N M Medical College and BRAM Hospital “indicates that postmenopausal women who engage in the comprehensive exercise program, benefit by maintaining a healthy body, bone density levels, and good mental health.”

In addition, a study conducted by the School of Global Sport Studies, Korea University on the relationship between Pilates and menopause found that “only a relatively short period (8 weeks) of Pilates exercise can effectively decrease menopausal symptoms.” The study stated that “Pilates is a good intervention for menopausal women because it helps improve not only physical fitness like balance and flexibility but also mental fitness.”

Here's how it can specifically address menopause-related issues:

  • Mood Enhancement:

Regular exercise, including Pilates, has a remarkable ability to boost mood. This mood enhancement is attributed to the release of endorphins during physical activity. Endorphins are often referred to as "feel-good" hormones because of their role in generating positive feelings and reducing the perception of pain.

Pilates sessions, with their focus on precise movements and controlled breathing, can provide a consistent release of these endorphins. This can be particularly helpful for menopausal women who are dealing with mood swings and irritability.

  • Weight Management:

Menopause often brings changes in metabolism and body composition, making weight management a concern for many women.

Pilates, with its emphasis on building lean muscle mass, can play a significant role in weight management during this phase. The muscle-building aspect of Pilates contributes to a higher resting metabolic rate, making it easier to maintain a healthy weight. As lean muscle burns more calories than fat, Pilates can help women navigate the metabolic changes associated with menopause.

  • Bone Health:

As women age and estrogen levels drop, bone density can decrease, leading to a higher risk of osteoporosis. Pilates offers resistance training that strengthens bones, reducing this risk.

Weight-bearing exercises, such as Pilates, are essential for maintaining bone density and reducing the risk of osteoporosis. Pilates incorporates resistance provided by various props and equipment, which promotes bone strength. Additionally, the weight-bearing nature of Pilates exercises, like standing leg work, contributes to overall bone health.

  • Muscle Tone & Joint Health:

Muscle loss, particularly in the core and pelvic floor muscles, is a common concern during menopause. These muscles are crucial for maintaining strength, stability and overall condition of the body and its movement patterns. In addition, joint pain and discomfort are common complaints during menopause.

Pilates, known for targeting these specific muscle groups, can help women preserve their muscle tone. Regular Pilates practice focuses on strengthening the core and pelvic floor muscles, this can combat the muscle loss associated with menopause and contribute to greater muscle tone, strength and abdominal appearance. In addition, Pilates exercises focus on joint mobility and stability, which can alleviate joint pain and improve overall joint health.

  • Improved Sleep:

Menopause often disrupts sleep patterns, leading to insomnia and night sweats. Poor sleep can exacerbate mood swings and cognitive issues, creating a cycle of discomfort.

Exercise has a positive impact on sleep quality. It can help regulate circadian rhythms and promote deeper, more restful sleep. By incorporating regular physical activity into their routines, menopausal women can improve the duration and quality of their sleep, leading to better overall well-being.

  • Balance & Confidence:

Menopausal women may also face challenges related to balance and body confidence. Changes in bone density and muscle mass, coupled with hormonal shifts, can affect posture and balance.

Exercise, particularly strength training and balance exercises, can mitigate these concerns. It enhances muscle strength, bone density, and overall physical stability. As a result, women feel more confident in their bodies and less prone to falls and injuries.

  • Stress Reduction:

Stress is a common companion during menopause, as women juggle hormonal changes, work, family responsibilities, and various other life demands. Chronic stress can lead to a range of health issues, both physical and emotional.

Exercise serves as a potent stress-reduction tool. It prompts the release of neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrine, which help regulate mood. Additionally, it reduces the production of stress hormones like cortisol. Pilates emphasises mindful movement and controlled breathing, making it an excellent stress-reduction technique. The slow, deliberate pace of Pilates sessions encourages mindfulness, providing a respite from the hustle and bustle of daily life. This meditative aspect of Pilates contributes to stress reduction, improving mental clarity and overall well-being.

As you get older, your metabolism tends to slow down – one reason for this is age-related muscle loss (muscle atrophy), due to the body becoming more resistant to normal growth signals. Muscle burns more calories than fat, so when you don’t preserve muscle, you’re more likely to put on weight – which can lead to forms of arthritis, among other health conditions. However, you can help avoid this through physical activity. Says Adam Byrne, Regional Clinical Fitness Lead, in an article for Nuffield Health.

Designing a Menopause-Friendly Pilates Routine

Creating a Pilates routine that caters to menopausal needs is essential for reaping the full benefits of this exercise method. However, it's crucial to prioritise safety and consult with a healthcare professional before beginning any new exercise regimen, especially if there's a risk of osteoporosis.

Here's a sample routine to get you started:

1. Imprint & Release / Pelvic Tilts:
  • Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.

  • Inhale and engage your pelvic floor muscles.

  • Exhale and engage your transverse abdomins (TA) muscle which wraps around the abdomen like a corset and then gently draw belly button towards spine to engage the obliques and encourage your lower back to lengthen towards the mat.

  • Inhale to return to the neutral position.

  • Perform 5-10 reps.

2. Leg Circles:
  • Lie on your back with your legs extended.

  • Engage your core and lift one leg toward the ceiling.

  • Inhale as you circle the lifted leg outward.

  • Exhale as you complete the circle.

  • Perform 5 circles in each direction for each leg.

3. Shoulder Bridge Prep / Glute Bridge:
  • Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet hip-width apart.

  • Inhale, engage your core, and lift your hips off the ground.

  • Exhale as you roll back down, one vertebra at a time.

  • Perform 10 reps.

4. Cat Stretch:
  • Start on your hands and knees in a tabletop position.

  • Inhale to prepare and engage the core.

  • Exhale, to begin to tuck tailbone under, rolling the spine one vertebra at a time into a flexed arch position.

  • Inhale to hold the pose.

  • Exhale to lift from the tailbone and sequentially articulate the spine to return to a neutral spinal position.

  • Flow through these poses for 1 minute.

5. Pilates Roll-Up:
  • Lying on your back with your legs extended and together, feet flexed.

  • Inhale and extend your arms overhead.

  • Exhale, engage your core, and sequentially roll up, reaching for your toes.

  • Inhale to hold and reach an exhale to reverse the movement, rolling back down with control.

  • Perform 10 reps.

6. Spine Stretch Forward:
  • Sit with your legs extended, feet flexed, and slightly apart.

  • Inhale and lengthen your spine.

  • Exhale, engage your core, and roll the spine one vertebra at a time to reach forward.

  • Inhale to return to the starting position.

  • Perform 8 reps.

7. Side-Lying Leg Lifts:
  • Lie on your side with your legs extended.

  • Inhale and engage your core.

  • Exhale and lift your top leg as high as comfortably possible.

  • Inhale to lower the leg.

  • Perform 10 reps on each side.

8. Shell Stretch:
  • Start in a kneeling position with your big toes touching.

  • Sit back on your heels and extend your arms forward.

  • Relax in this stretch for 2 minutes.

Remember to consult with a qualified Pilates instructor or healthcare professional before beginning any new exercise program, especially during menopause or if you have any underlying health concerns. They can help tailor a routine that suits your individual needs and ensures safety.

“Only a relatively short period (8 weeks) of Pilates exercise can effectively decrease menopausal symptoms.”

Menopause is a transformative phase in a woman's life, but it doesn't have to be synonymous with discomfort and distress. With the power of Pilates, you can navigate this life stage with greater ease, both physically and emotionally. Regular Pilates practice can help manage menopause symptoms, boost your mood, and enhance overall well-being, empowering you to embrace this new chapter in your life with confidence and vitality.

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