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3 midlife exercise myths debunked

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Are you a woman in midlife worried about weight gain in menopause? Does the thought of doing more exercise to keep it at bay make you feel exhausted? You’ve heard that you should also be doing strength training but the idea of going to the gym and picking up massive plates of steel is daunting. And then there’s everything you see online about counting calories, restricting foods or having meal replacement shakes.  

In this post I debunk 3 exercise myths that might be sabotaging your health and happiness during midlife. The good news is you don’t need to spend hours and hours a week getting (more!) tired, hot and sweaty. And you certainly don’t need to starve yourself.

Most exercise trends and advice are generic

Exercise trends and advice are not tailored for midlife women. You know that feeling of being invisible? Well, the fitness industry does us no favours.

Gyms, programs, challenges and advertising are targeted to a demographic that’s mostly young and predominantly male, chasing aesthetic goals. They don’t take into account our physiology and nutritional requirements during perimenopause and menopause. Not only that, our social media feeds are full of content that preys on our fears and insecurities about body image. The fact we still have to put up with this s*** at our age is mind-blowing.  These are just some of the reasons why it’s important to debunk these midlife exercise myths.

MYTH 1: You need to exercise more

The biggest complaint among midlife women is an increase in belly fat. This occurs because the body produces extra cortisol to help replenish the drop in estrogen. This excess cortisol makes the body more prone to storing fat (commonly around our middle) rather than lean muscle. A 2019 ANU study debunked the idea that menopause causes weight gain. It found that instead, menopause caused a change in weight distribution.  

If you’re worried about weight gain or belly fat, more exercise is not going to fix it. In particular, more cardio or more High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is not going to fix it. In fact, it could be making it worse by adding to the cortisol overload.  

Instead, we need to do exercises that support our hormones. Think more effective, rather than more time spent. Specifically, minimal HIIT, more strength and resistance training, and moderate intensity cardio.

I highly recommend Debra’s advice and programs that are designed for women 50+ based decades of knowledge and experience. You can watch Debra’s inspiring TedTalk here

MYTH 1.1 You need to eat less

Closely linked to the myth of needing to exercise more is the myth of needing to eat less. We’ve been conditioned to see our bodies as “not enough” (skinny, toned, you name it). Furthermore, we punish ourselves for not exercising enough by eating less. This can lead to a cycle of restrictive diets and quick-fix solutions. Health law professor Timothy Caulfield reports here that by the time a woman is age 45 she will have tried 61 diets. As Timothy says, dieting is a cultural obsession. 

Skipping meals or replacing them with a shake won’t give you long term results and won’t make you fitter and healthier – especially in midlife. During this time your body needs more food. It needs protein at every meal to aid in muscle repair and strength, more calcium sources for healthy bones, and more complex carbohydrates to increase serotonin levels and aid sleep.  

Instead of punishing yourself by reducing your calorie intake, can you see food as necessary fuel for your body? Fuel to support your immune system and to help you sleep better and cope with symptoms of menopause? 

If you are struggling with these complex issues I encourage you to seek advice from your doctor or an accredited nutritionist.

MYTH 2: Strength training bulks you up

Does the image of a dude flexing his biceps come to mind when I say “Strength Training”? There’s a common myth that women shouldn’t do strength training because it “bulks them up”. Now if that’s the look you’re after I say power to you, sister! Most of us, however, are more interested in toning our muscles, maintaining the ability to get off the floor, lift a suitcase up a flight of stairs, or work towards a Chaturanga pose in yoga.

Strength training can do all of that and more. Importantly, it’s vital for preserving muscle mass that starts to decline in our 30s and accelerates once we hit 60. It also helps support our hormones and reduce excess belly fat.

You can start strength training, also known as resistance training, with exercises like these ones that can be done at home with or without equipment: 

  • Squats and lunges – with or without holding hand weights 
  • Holding a plank for 30 seconds 
  • Single leg dead lifts with or without hand weights 
  • Tricep kickback using tins of food
  • Bridge with feet on a chair or exercise ball to strengthen hamstrings

The key to strength training is to gradually increase load, either by doing more repetitions or by increasing the weight you’re using in order to reach muscle fatigue. You’ll get optimal results by also making sure you have adequate protein at each meal, and building in enough rest between workouts. You can read more about strength training for beginners in my blog post here. 

MYTH 3: Gentle exercise is enough

I love gentle exercise. My happy place is my stand up paddle board and, I think walking is the most under-estimated exercise. Yoga is a big part of my life (although yoga is so much more than ‘exercise’) and there’s no doubt that Pilates is awesome. However… these types of exercises are not enough to combat the gamut of health risks we face due to biological ageing.

Dr Lisa Mosconi in her fantastic book The XX Brain reports a study of 200 women followed for 44 years showed that

“a higher level of cardiovascular fitness at midlife was associated with very low rates of future dementia, whereas over 30 percent of those with the lowest level of cardiovascular fitness developed dementia later in life”

Mosconi, L (2020). The XX Brain, p. 229. Allen & Unwin, Sydney.

Your risk of developing chronic and acute conditions such as dementia, osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes, cardiac disease and stroke can be lowered by getting enough of the right kind of exercise. Put simply: moderate intensity cardio exercise that gets your heart pumping, paired with resistance (strength) training.

We need to be doing things like brisk walking, jogging, swimming or cycling. The Mayo Clinic recommends we do at least 150 minutes of moderate activity (or 75 minutes vigorous) each week. The myth that we should slow down, stroll on the beach and fade off into the sunset needs to kicked to the curb!

4 principals for exercising in midlife

We’re too busy being fabulous to be wasting time and energy on exercises that don’t support our physical and mental health in midlife. We need an exercise strategy that will give us bang for buck. We need movement and fuel that make us feel great, is best for our changing bodies, and that sets us up for a healthy and happy midlife and beyond.  

With this in mind I use a strategy of 4 principles : 

  1. Strength and resistance training – Two or three 30 minute workouts per week. It’s achievable, I don’t feel exhausted by it and I know it’s what my body needs. 
  2. Cardio – I try for 30 minutes each day. A fast walk or a jog with intervals is my go-to cardio.
  3. Food is fuel – Protein every meal, lots of vegetables, carbs are life!
  4. Rest, restore and balance – adequate time between exercising, prioritise sleep, mindfulness practices for stress reduction, yoga asanas (postures) for balance.

Please note – this is my strategy for my goals of maintaining health and reducing my risk of chronic disease, countering the loss of muscle mass that occurs as we get older, reducing stress, and feeling good. Your strategy will be different if you’re training for an event or have a health condition. Please consult a registered exercise professional or your doctor for advice specific to your situation. 

Imagine a transformative approach

Instead of using exercise and food to punish ourselves imagine if we approached it differently. Imagine if we used principles for exercising that keep us strong, our bones healthy, our cardiovascular system tip-top and our stress levels under control.

What if we fueled our bodies with the types of nutrients it needs rather than going on endless diets? What a powerful transformative approach that would be, not just for us individually but also for our mothers, our daughters, our sisters, our friends and our society. 

Sally xx

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