One symptom many women are familiar with after menopause is hot flashes. For some unlikely women, those flashes of intense heat, also known as vasomotor dysfunction, or vasomotor symptoms, begin even before menopause starts, during the perimenopausal period, and worsens as menopause draws closer.
What do vasomotor symptoms, specifically a hot flash, feel like? Hot flash sufferers experience the sudden onset of heat, often followed by profuse sweating. Some women also feel chills after the hot flash subsides. These flashes of heat are uncomfortable and unpredictable. They can come any time, during the day, and sometimes disrupt sleep and lead to soaked bedsheets. No matter when they happen, hot flashes are at best a minor nuisance, and at worst, a major inconvenience.
Although many women expect hot flashes to be a short-term problem, a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine showed they can last for as long as a decade. Since we’re all a little different, some women experience more frequent and severe hot flashes than others.
Why do some women have more severe hot flashes? Factors that increase the risk of having more problematic hot flashes include being overweight, being a former smoker, or high levels of stress. The only “cure” for hot flashes is hormone replacement therapy, but that comes with other problems, including an increased risk of breast cancer, blood clots, and stroke.
So, what’s a woman going through menopause and having drenching sweats to do?
Hot Flashes and Exercise
According to a new study, vigorous exercise could be just what the doctor ordered for those pesky hot flashes. In this study, 21 healthy women with hot flashes took part. The researchers brought on hot flashes in the women by subjecting them to passive heat stress. They did this at the beginning of the study and again at the end of the study while they monitored the frequency and severity of the hot flashes the women experienced.
During the study, 14 of the women took part in a 16-week program of moderate-intensity exercise. The rest served as a control group and did not exercise. After 16 weeks, they again measured the intensity and number of hot flashes both groups experienced.
The results? Good news for the exercise group! The exercisers experienced less blood flow to their skin and less sweating than they did before starting the exercise program. As the head researcher in this study pointed out, exercising at a moderate to high-intensity level may reduce the severity of hot flashes in women going through menopause.
One drawback of this study is it’s small, only 21 women. Other studies are mixed about whether exercise reduces hot flashes. So, the results of the current study are encouraging, but it’s not the last word on the subject. It would be helpful to see the results of larger studies.
How Exercise Impacts Other Menopause Symptoms
When you consider menopausal symptoms as a whole, not just hot flashes, exercise offers significant benefits. A study published in the journal Menopause showed significantly fewer women who got the recommended amount of exercise (30 minutes or more 3 times a week) experienced severe menopausal symptoms such as mood changes and insomnia. That’s hardly surprising since regular physical activity is linked with a lower risk for insomnia and mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Exercise that gets you hot and sweaty can help control menopausal sweats, but what about mind-body exercises like yoga? Whether yoga reduces the frequency or severity of hot flashes isn’t clear. Some research shows modest benefits, but a relatively recent study involving almost 250 women found no clear-cut benefits of yoga for hot flashes.
BUT, in this study, women who did yoga workouts DID experience an improvement in other symptoms related to menopause. For example, physical activity helped with sleep. It’s quite common for women to experience insomnia around the time of menopause.
Taken as a whole, exercise, both moderate to high-intensity and mind-body exercises like yoga, seems to improve some vasomotor symptoms of menopause and seems, according to the latest study, to help with hot flashes. The take-home message? Your best bet for taming hot flashes is exercise that works up a sweat, like high-intensity interval training. For sleep and mood changes, yoga can help.
Menopause-Related Weight Gain
Let’s not forget about another common problem that shows up around menopause – weight gain. According to a study published in the International Journal of Obesity, the average woman gains 10 pounds of weight within 8 years of going through menopause. Plus, as estrogen levels drop, you store more fat around your waistline and tummy rather than your hips and thighs. Exercise helps here, but not just aerobic exercise. You need resistance training too.
Why is resistance training so important? You lose bone density and muscle mass after menopause. In fact, muscle and bone loss accelerate after the age of 50. This changes your body composition and slows your metabolism. Resistance training is the only way to slow down bone and muscle loss as your hormones change. Although taking a brisk walk each day qualifies as “exercise,” it’s not addressing issues like muscle and bone loss.
The Bottom Line
This new study offers hope that women who suffer from frequent hot flashes can relieve vasomotor symptoms and hot flashes without hormone replacement therapy – through the power of exercise. At the very least, exercise makes the menopausal transition easier by improving sleep and helping with mood changes, one of the most frequent symptoms. Plus, when you combine sweaty exercise with resistance training, you curb the loss of bone and muscle mass that goes along with menopause.
In addition, exercise improves insulin sensitivity, improving metabolic health. Insulin sensitivity goes down after menopause, placing you at higher risk for metabolic syndrome, weight gain, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.
As you can see, exercise is good menopausal medicine and an alternative to hormone replacement therapy. Now you know how exercise can make your life easier during and after menopause. Take advantage of it!
- Blümel JE, Fica J, Chedraui P, et al. Sedentary lifestyle in middle-aged women is associated with severe menopausal symptoms and obesity. Menopause. Published online ahead of print. January 19, 2016.
- Bailey T, Cable T, et al. Exercise training reduces the acute physiological severity of post-menopausal hot flushes. Journal of Physiology. 2015.
- Harvard Health Publications. “Menopause-related hot flashes and night sweats can last for years”
- WebMD. “Yoga Fails to Cool Hot Flashes, But May Aid Sleep”
- Medscape Family Medicine. “Exercise at Menopause: A Critical Difference”
- Star Tribune. “Mayo Clinic study finds explanation for postmenopausal belly fat”