For many women, the transition from child-bearing years, through perimenopause, and up to menopause itself, is nothing more than a sequential rite of passage. However, for the millions of women who suffer acutely from hot flashes, these can be tumultuous and often frustrating years.
It has been referred to as “my little tropical vacation”, “my own personal heater”, and various other less-than-idyllic descriptions.
Experts seem somewhat conflicted as to the actual etiology of the hot flash. According to research published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, luteinizing hormone (LH) or the factors that trigger its pulsatile release are related to the mechanism responsible for the initiation of hot flashes. An analysis of simultaneous skin temperature and circulating LH levels showed a significant positive correlation (p less than 0.01). Follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) levels, however, showed no consistent relationship with skin temperature.
Another study concluded that the increases in LH and FSH that occur during the early stage of the menopausal transition induce vasomotor instability, resulting in hot flashes. It should come as no surprise that, as conflicted as the medical community seems to be on this issue, women too are seemingly at odds as to how best to conquer the temperature war being waged within their bodies.
During menopause, the body produces less estrogen and progesterone. As a result, the thermostat in the brain, the hypothalamus, receives mixed signals. This hot vs. cold dilemma causes the blood vessels to expand and contract on an irregular basis. With increased blood flow throughout the body, a feeling of heat starts on the face, the neck, and continues to the chest. This ‘flush” can vary in intensity from woman to woman: some may simply perspire, while others sweat profusely. Sometimes a chill follows a hot flash. Depending on the intensity of the hot flash, many women experience headaches, feelings of weakness, dizziness and loss of sleep.
Striving for a more homeopathic solution for many health concerns, an increasing number of women seem to be shying away from traditional hormone replacement therapy to ease their perimenopausal hot flashes. To that end, exercise has become at the forefront of treatment options in an attempt to mitigate hot flashes. According to a study published in the ACTA Obestetrics and Gynecology by Mats Hammar and colleagues in 2011, menopausal women who exercised regularly experienced hot flashes only half as often as women who were sedentary. The mechanism by which physical activity helps with hot flashes is most likely related to the hormonal response to exercise.
According to Barbara Sternfeld, Ph.D., in her paper “Is Physical Activity Beneficial for Hot Flushes?”, the release of the calming hormone norepinephrine occurs after just one burst of exercise. This, paired with the physiological adaptation of a slower resting heart rate through regular exercise, keeps the body in a calmer state, lowering the incidence of hot flashes. Sternfeld also points out that an effect similar to a “runner’s high” can help the brain regulate temperature.
Exactly what modes of exercise seem to be the most effective at staving off hot flashes? Exercise for the menopausal woman should include both resistance training and aerobic components. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, a health-related exercise program should be comprised of aerobic training three to five days per week, and weight training two to three days per week. Aerobic exercise should include a warm-up and cool down, which when coupled with the dynamic exercise component should total 45 to 60 minutes of moderate to high-intensity exercise. Aerobic exercise can include walking, jogging, bicycling or swimming. Weight training should consist of 2 to 3 sets of 10 to 15 repetitions, choosing exercises which target the large muscle groups of the body: chest, back, legs, and shoulders.
As a side benefit, exercise can lower the risk for cardiovascular disease in general and strengthen muscle mass to prevent fractures, which is another risk factor that grows as estrogen levels decline, according to Barbara Bushman, a Professor of Health and Physical Education at Missouri State University and author of “Action Plan for Menopause.” Women who don’t exercise also tend to have a higher percentage of body fat and weight, another factor that contributes to increased risk of hot flashes. In fact, one study demonstrated that women with a body mass index (BMI) over 30 had a higher incidence of hot flashes than those whose BMI fell below that number.
Arming oneself with exercise routines is of course no guarantee that the “tropical vacation” moments will be eradicated forever. However, finding an easy way to mitigate hot flashes while at the same time increasing strength, lowering body fat, and warding off fractures seems like a good enough reason to give exercise a try. Boost your mood, call upon those almighty endorphins, and before you know it you just might be cooling off a bit!
ACTA Obstetrics and Gynecology Scandinavia “Does Physical Exercise Influence the Frequency of Postmenopausal Hot Flushes?” Mats Hammar, et al.; 2011
Tataryn IV, Meldrum DR, Lu KH, Frumar AM, Judd HL “LH, FSH and skin temperaure during the menopausal hot flash” J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1979 Jul; 49(1):152-4.
About the Author
Cathleen Kronemer is an AFAA-Certified Group Exercise Instructor, NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer, competitive bodybuilder and freelance writer. She is employed at the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis, MO. Cathleen has been involved in the fitness industry for 22 years. Look for her on www.WorldPhysique.com.
She welcomes your feedback and your comments!