- According to a recent study in The Journal of Physiology, women who have an exercise routine before menopause may have a lower risk of developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes later in life.
- However, even if you started regularly working out after menopause, that could still boost your exercise capacity by about 15 percent.
- Regardless, just a few months of regular training could still have a profound effect on heart health, both now and in the future.
Before menopause, women have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease than men, but that flips after they’ve gone through the transition. Although the reason isn’t fully understood, a new study in The Journal of Physiology offers one possibility: Hormonal changes reduce the ability for women to form tiny blood vessels in their muscles, increasing the risk of cardiovascular conditions and especially type 2 diabetes.
Fortunately, researchers suggest, this doesn’t have to be inevitable, because short-term exercise can help—after menopause, but especially before it.
Researchers looked at two groups of women: 12 were between 59 to 70 years old and five were between 21 to 28 years old. Both groups had a muscle biopsy from the thigh before starting, and then trained over an eight-week period using spin bikes at moderate to high intensity.
The younger group who started exercising before they hit menopause showed an increase in the number of capillaries—or small blood vessels—in skeletal muscle tissue at the end of the study period, while the older group did not. Capillaries, which help sugar and fat absorb into the muscles for more efficient usage as fuel, also have an effect on insulin resistance. That’s why having less of an ability to grow new ones could raise cardiovascular concerns.
That doesn’t mean post-menopause exercise is a wash, though. In the study, even though they didn’t show significant capillary growth, the older group did improve their exercise capacity by 15 percent. That, in itself, is a cardiovascular boost, according to study coauthor Line Noregaard Olsen, Ph.D.(c), at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Nutrition, Exercise, and Sports.
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The link between estrogen loss—which happens during menopause—and negative changes in blood vessels is well-established. A previous study suggested that some of the main menopause symptoms, like hot flashes and sleep disturbance, may be connected to this vascular aging process.
The main limitations of the current study are the small sample size and the short timeframe. Still, it’s a promising start that could lead to a larger study examining the potential long-term impacts of blood vessel changes during perimenopause, or the transition into menopause.
In the meantime, it’s tough to beat the takeaway that even a few months of regular training could have a profound effect on heart health, both now and in the future.
“The main message here is that women benefit from being physically active before menopause, because their estrogen levels are still high,” Noregaard Olsen told Runner’s World. “They have a better starting point when entering menopause, compared to trying to address the situation afterward.”
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