Hot flash! Women of a certain age can stay fit

I wrote the following post originally for the Charlotte Observer and The News & Observer; It appeared in both papers yesterday, May 4. A related article, on where to find the classes mentioned, can be found here.

Hot flashes. Headaches. Hair growing where it shouldn’t and not where it should. A tummy that won’t go away no matter how many crunches you do. Just when women of a certain age thought it couldn’t get worse, a new study suggests it can.

This latest study, conducted by the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School and published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that menopausal and perimenopausal women fight an uphill battle to stay in shape. Those already in shape and at an appropriate weight need to exercise an hour a day just to maintain their existing status, the study found. Further, women classified as overweight, which would constitute the largest segment of this age group, need to exercise two hours a day to get into shape while those women falling into the obese category need to cancel their social lives entirely because they need to hit the gym for three hours a day to get into shape.

“A study like this gets the entire female population in a tizzy,” says Mary Petters, an exercise physiologist with the UNC Wellness Center at Meadowmont in Chapel Hill. “Not a lot of people have time to exercise like that.”

Nor do they need to.

Petters and other health and fitness experts say the study is flawed. For one, the results were self-reported, meaning those 34,000-plus participants (average age: 54) were on the honor system to report their fitness habits over the course of the 13-year study. People may not intentionally lie in such studies, says Gerald Endress, fitness director of the Duke Diet & Fitness Center in Durham, but they have a tendency to overestimate how long they exercise and forget what they eat between main meals.

“People tend to graze throughout the day,” says Endress.

There’s also the fact that study participants were deemed fit, overweight or obese based on on their body mass index, or BMI, which can penalize people for having more muscle mass, which is heavier than fat. And diet wasn’t considered in the study, a significant flaw in the opinion of Endress.

“With fitness, you can always overeat your workout,” says Endress. “Some people feel they can eat whatever they want when they exercise.”

That said, the healthcare community believes the report does reflect a general truism: Everyone, especially women dealing with the double whammy of menopause and a slowing metabolism that comes with aging, needs to exercise more.

Menopause can be especially vexing for women trying to lose weight. As their estrogen levels drop, their testosterone exerts more influence. Because of the ensuing havoc — the aforementioned hot flashes, headaches, hair woes — a woman’s body will do what it can to retain whatever stores of estrogen it has. Alas, says Petters, estrogen is stored in fat.

But despair not, says Leigh Shipman, an instructor with the Simmons Branch of the Charlotte YMCA. She’s been been working with “active older adults” for 17 years, and she’s seen both men and women lose weight and get fit.

“The average American woman should do just fine with one hour of moderate exercise a day,” says Shipman, who is 51.

Adds Petters, who deals mostly with people over 50: The key is finding the right exercise regimen, one you enjoy, one you look forward to doing and thus, one that you’ll stick with.

“There’s something out there for everyone,” says Petters. “You’re never too old to start.

* * * * * * *

Four for the 50s

We polled health and fitness experts Mary Petters at the UNC Wellness Center at Meadowmont, Leigh Shipman with the Charlotte YMCAs and Gerald Endress with the Duke Diet & Fitness Center to find the most popular exercise classes for women 45 and older at their facilities.

This Latin dance workout originated in Columbia in the 1990s and emigrated to the U.S. 10 years ago. It is currently offered in just about every gym/wellness center that offers fitness classes.
Benefits: It’s a full-body aerobic workout, says Mary Petters with UNC-Meadowmont. It gets you sweating, gets your heart rate up, burns calories — and it’s fun.
Why it’s popular with the 50-plus set: Unlike other dance and aerobic routines, Zumba is  less choreographed, more free-spirited. No tricky footstep combinations to memorize.
Water aerobics / swimming
Ten years ago, says Duke’s Endress, water exercises focused on folks with arthritis and other joint issues. That’s changed. “Water aerobics has really taken off … it’s a much more vigorous exercise. … We even have an aqua boot camp.”
Benefits: Good cardio, good toning.
Why it’s popular with the 50-plus set: You may not have arthritis, but at 50 your joints still need more TLC than they did 20 years ago; exercising in water relives the pressure on your joints. Plus, such aerobics classes are typically held in warm water pools (80 to 83 degrees or warmer), which helps relax muscles.

According to the National Sporting Goods Association, walking was the preferred exercise for 24.9 million women ages 45 and up in 2009, making it by far the most popular form of exercise for that demographic (“exercising with equipment” was a distant second, with 11.3 million participants.)
Benefits: A vigorous daily walk of at least 30 minutes can, according to AARP: manage weight, control blood pressure, decrease the risk of heart attack, boost “good” cholesterol, lower the risk of stroke, reduce risk of breast cancer and type 2 diabetes, protect against hip fracture, reduce the need for gallstone injury.
Why it’s popular with the 50-plus set: It’s convenient (you can do it on your own schedule, out your front door), it’s inexpensive (all you need is a decent pair of walking shoes), and it can be social (walking groups, formal and informal, are especially popular with older walkers).

Exercises done either with or without equipment that focus on core strength, flexibility and balance — the main areas we worry about as we age.
Benefits: The aforementioned benefits can make you leaner and stronger, but they also help people move more gracefully and efficiently, making it possible to do some of the basic functions of day-to-day life that can become a challenge as we age.
Why it’s popular with the 50-plus set: It’s adaptable. Pilates classes can be grueling enough to benefit a professional athlete or scaled back to accommodate people with less strength and flexibility.
* * * * * *

  1. Getting started. Consult a nutritionist and a trainer. A nutritionist can help you get a handle on what you really are eating and what you should be eating, says Duke’s Gerald Endress. “People say, ‘I don’t eat a lot,’ then they start writing down all the Starbucks coffees they have,” says Endress. “They can even overeat fruit — an apple has 100 calories.” Likewise, says UNC-Meadowmont’s Mary Petters, a good trainer can help you look at your lifestyle — work, family commitments, etc. — and see what realistically will work for you.
  2. Mix it up. “The body gets used to what you’re doing,” says the Charlotte Y’s Leigh Shipman, “and after a while it won’t work as hard. You need to challenge it to work the muscles differently.” For instance, you may walk on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and take pilates on Tuesday and Thursday.
  3. Achieve a “moderate” pace. You need to push yourself. Not at first, says Petters: It’s good to work into a new routine. But to get stronger and lose weight your body needs to be challenged. The fitness industry has various scientific ways of determining your Rate of Perceived Exertion; Shipman relies on one tried and true measure: Sweat. “If you’re not sweating, your heart is not getting the workout it needs and you’re not burning the calories you need to burn.”

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