Remember that high school gym teacher who told you to “walk it off” when you were hurt? Yeah, well, turns out Coach J may have had the right idea, at least when it comes to mood.

Exercise may be the last thing you want to do when you’re dealing with menopause issues, but it may also be your first line of defense against many of the emotional impacts of this major transition.

Walk it off, run it off, swim it off, lift it off – there is enormous healing power in movement, and we’re going to talk about how to tap (dance) into it.

Exercise and emotional wellness

Research proves it: regular, moderate exercise improves mood. But you have to stick with it.

What can exercise do?

Exercise promotes endorphins, the feel-good hormones. These natural mood-boosters are great at combating mild-to-moderate depression of the kind many women report during perimenopause and menopause.

Also, exercise and endorphins suppress cortisol, the stress hormone that can keep us in an elevated state of fight-or-flight during the menopause transition. High, long-term stress and anxiety have all sorts of down-stream effects on our bodies and psyches and can worsen many menopause symptoms. Aerobic exercise, even just 20 minutes of it, can help pull cortisol back to manageable levels.

Regular exercise can also help you sleep better and aid in weight management, both of which can make us feel healthier and happier. Nearly any woman in menopause and midlife will tell you that decent sleep is both rare and gloriously mood-elevating when it happens, so anything we can do to increase our chances is worth a little effort. Just avoid exercising too close to bedtime, as that can bring on night sweats for some women.

More reasons to move: our PTs filled us in on how exercise helps women dealing with osteopenia or osteoporosis

Moving more regularly gives us energy. Yes, exercise can wear you out and help you sleep, but paradoxically, it also shores up our energy reserves. Start slowly, if exercise isn’t part of your daily routine now, but over time, your body will adjust to the higher energy demand by producing more and working more efficiently. And having the energy to do what we love (and let’s face it, the stuff we just need to do) is key to emotional wellness.

Exercise can be a social activity. Lots of women in menopause withdraw due to depression, embarrassment over bodily changes like weight gain or incontinence, or low energy. But being with other people is really good for our brains and our spirits. Because social isolation often leads to higher mortality rates, exercise can help save your life in more ways than one!

Does it really work, or is it a lot of hype?

A small study of 23 healthy post-menopausal women showed a clinically significant improvement in anxiety, depression, health worries, and quality of life with exercise. The women, who were not active prior to the study, took on a six-week walking program, completing roughly 15 hours of exercise over the course of the study.

A follow-up of the women showed that benefits continued as long as the women kept walking. At the end of the first six-week period, the women were split into two groups: one kept walking, one stopped. The group that kept it up kept reaping the benefits, while those in the sedentary group made fewer gains or none.

A much larger study of nearly 34,000 Norwegian adults found that not only does exercise help on a day-to-day basis, it can also help inoculate you from depression in the future.

So how do I start?

Talk with your doc. As ever, if you’re going to add something new to your daily regimen, a quick check-in with the doc is a great place to start, especially if you haven’t been exercising or you have a medical condition.

Ease into it. Ramping up too hard and too fast is a recipe for sore muscles and a quick quit. Start from where you are; do more today than you did yesterday. Adding just 20-30 minutes a day can be enough to see benefits, but if five minutes is what you’ve got in you today, that’s five minutes your body and mind will appreciate.

Find what you love. I know, this makes me laugh every time too, but it is possible that there’s an activity out there you will enjoy. Walking is a great exercise and will do perfectly well, but if you’re looking for something different, there are lots of options. Try something outside your comfort zone: go rock climbing, borrow a buddy’s road or mountain bike, go for a hike, hit the pool, take up fencing or swing dancing. If there’s something you’ve always wanted to try, now’s the time to try it. Groupon has a “fitness classes” section (pole dancing!), so grab a deal, talk some friends into coming along, and do something new. (Nature is a natural mood-elevator, so bonus points for those who can get outside among some trees for their 30 minutes.) Join a group like One Million Women Walking for support, motivation, and tips to get you moving and keep you moving.

Make it a habit. Plan your exercise into your day the same way you plan meal prep, board meetings, or kid-activity chauffeuring. To be effective, exercise needs to be frequent and consistent. Wake up earlier in the morning (if you can spare the sleep), use part of your lunch break to walk, if work allows. But make it a non-negotiable priority, five days a week.

Track to see improvement. Positive feedback is a great motivator, so track a metric that will help you see results. Track mood, sleep, measurements, consistency, give yourself a notch for each new thing you try – whatever will help you see the benefits and keep you moving forward. Just remember to measure yourself against … well, yourself. You’re not competing with your superfit friend or that gal training for her 3rd Ironman (unless competition is what revs your engine, in which case, kick butt).

Remember the end goal: to support your emotional well-being through a trying time. How you do that is up to you.

If exercise has helped you overcome emotional difficulty, we’d love to hear what you’re doing, how you got started, how you stuck with it, and how it’s helping. Yes, that’s a lot, but come on, share with us! Leave a comment below, or let us know on Facebook or in Midlife & Menopause Solutions, our closed Facebook group.

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Shannon Perry

Shannon is a celebrated author and global educator. Whether she’s interviewing a physician or producing a podcast, her appetite for research, facts, and truth culminates in credible health education and programming that women can rely on. An avid runner, cyclist, and climber, Shannon knows a thing or two about thriving in midlife and lives in Seattle with her cat, dog and boyfriend.

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