We spoke to clinical exercise specialist Jane Dowling about fitness and the menopause.
Team MM: Did you find that your clients had difficulty speaking about the menopause?
Jane Dowling: At first, yes. However, as I have been very open and honest about my symptoms with my clients and on my social media, it has given other women the confidence to start to talk about it too. I do understand how hard it is for some women. My personal training studio is a very private, safe space. When talking to my female clients I would notice changes in their mood, confidence, energy levels and sleep patterns. Therefore, I would subtly change what I did in their exercise session and then offer them the opportunity to talk, if they wanted to, and then come up with an action plan for them to follow outside of the studio. Suggesting making changes to diet, finding the right health professional and other lifestyle changes. The more we talk about it the less of a taboo it will be.
Team MM: What would you say to women who have no motivation to exercise?
JD: Drawing on both my professional and personal experience, I would like to reassure them that it is going to be OK and how they are feeling will not last forever. The thought of undertaking any physical activity when feeling so low can feel overwhelming. But, I would say that starting off with simple exercises to start to connect with their body in a positive way will help.
Simple exercises that can be performed at home; mobility exercises on a chair, stretching and toning is a good place to start. Going for a walk with a friend and having a cuppa afterwards has great benefits not only physically but also mentally – plus if it’s in the diary you are less likely to want to let your friend down so you will do it! This is a great starting point to build on over time. Women in Sport released a study last year that highlighted women who undertook physical activity felt empowered and more in control of their menopause symptoms.
Team MM: What symptoms of the menopause do you think are the biggest factors in not getting enough exercise?
JD: Fatigue, disrupted sleep, painful muscles, feeling overwhelmed and anxious are probably the biggest factors, which is why I try to emphasise that starting with just small steps and making small changes will have a positive effect on menopause symptoms. Exercising helps release the feel-good receptors in the brain, which help with anxiety and help promote sleep. Muscle and joint pain can be relieved through simple mobility and stretching exercises. Becoming breathless will help to release feel good receptors in our brain that will help with the other symptoms.
Team MM: Given your experience with heart disease prevention, do you think there’s a lack of understanding among women about the importance of heart health?
JD: That is a fab question, thank you, because it will help educate the women who do not know about the importance of heart health! I still receive a lot of private messages on my social media thanking me for my posts when I raise awareness of this. We need to reassure women that they do not have to join a gym to become breathless and look after their heart health.
Sport England have just launched a great campaign that emphasises that “everything counts” #fitgotreal. The campaign video shows women hula-hooping or dancing around their kitchen to music to become breathless. It highlights how simple becoming physically active can be. It’s a fab video! I know from my cardiac sessions with women in their 70s who have suffered a life changing cardiac event that if they had the knowledge earlier to have taken preventative measures, they would have! The decrease in estrogen puts us at a higher risk of heat disease so becoming breathless on a daily basis no matter how small or how we do it will have a positive effect on heart health.
Team MM: What advice would you give regarding a woman’s diet that will help her improve heart health?
JD: Weight management is really important to keep heart health at an optimum. Cutting back on sugar, saturated fat, salt and foods containing cholesterol, which include red meat, cakes, fried foods and processed food. Pre-packed food can be laden with sugar and salt. Therefore, swapping to good fats such as oily fish, avocados, walnuts, brazil nuts and almonds. Taking onboard lots of vegetables, especially green leafy vegetables and fruit such as berries. Together with wholegrains such as brown rice and legumes. Also, drink plenty of water to keep hydrated as this will also have a positive effect on heart health. We cannot forget to look at alcohol consumptions. Sometimes menopausal women reach for a glass or two of wine to relax but this will only have a short-term feel-good effect.
Team MM: Can you tell us about your experience with mental health during the menopause?
JD: I had my first panic attack 5 years ago when I started my menopause. I was recovering from life changing surgery and a car accident. It was the first time in my life that I had been sedentary for such a long period of time. Even though I teach 1-2-1 PT sessions in my studio, I do not take part. I instruct very well! I have always been active, from being a young gymnast to the beginning of my fitness career when I would teach 15-20 classes per week. Menopause hit me like a freight train. I was not sleeping and then waking up at 3am with my mind racing with irrational thoughts. My moods were so low, I cried a lot. I knew this was not me and I knew I had to do something about it.
I slowly rehabbed my injuries and would walk everywhere or listen to uplifting music on my stationary bike. I built up slowly, and as I became stronger physically I started to feel I was mentally stronger. At one point I felt so bad and low I even considered giving up my studio – I am so glad I didn’t! If I do not keep all of my “health plates” spinning, then I still suffer. I am very honest on my Insta stories as I feel it is important to highlight this symptom of menopause and to reassure women that it is ok, you can feel better, but also if you have a down day its ok, tomorrow is a new day.
Team MM: Were you motivated to exercise in the low moments that you had?
JD: Not always. It is difficult when you are feeling low for sure. However, I have been through extreme stresses and trauma in the past so my motivation was to feel good again and I know becoming physically active would make a big difference to me. I made a conscious, informed decision. I just knew I had to do it. Even when I was feeling down, low and tired, I kept telling myself: “This is the lowest you’re going to feel. If you walk up those stairs, meet Jacqui for a walk on the common, or do just 10 minutes on the bike and your stretches, then you will feel better – you know it just do it!” So, I had to talk to myself as if I were talking to a client!
Team MM: How long would you say it takes to feel the positive effects of exercise on mental health?
JD: The great news is that it is immediate! Research shows that walking outside for just 10 minutes to become slightly breathless will raise our feel-good receptors in the brain and have an immediate positive affect on mood. Taking part in regular physical activity will also offer a long term, consistent effect on mental health. It also relieves stress, improves memory, helps with sleep, and boosts your overall mood.
Team MM: What’s the best advice you can give to someone struggling with depression or anxiety?
JD: Seek some professional advice if you feel you cannot control it yourself. Also see a menopause specialist. Find out if it is due to menopause or an external factor. Unfortunately, a lot of GP’s don’t understand menopause and prescribe anti-depressants without looking at other symptoms. There are menopause clinics that you can be referred to by your GP. If it is hormonal related then HRT could help. Talk to your friends and family. My husband didn’t realise how much I was suffering for over a year, he thought he was doing something wrong which made the whole situation worse! There is a lot of help out there. Your GP could refer you to a local gym under the ‘GP referral system’ that is available in many boroughs or try some 50-plus sessions in local leisure centers, both are at a fraction of the cost and you will be surrounded by our demographic with an instructor that understands your needs.
Jane Dowling is a clinical exercise specialist with extensive experience dealing with a variety of people including older adults suffering with heart disease and osteoporosis. This work fuels her passion to educate younger women on how to take preventative measures. Jane has over 20 years’ experience in personally tailored training and health solutions. Inspired by her own Meno experiences she founded MENO&ME, which is a source of advice and ideas on diet, exercise and lifestyle changes designed to help women stay fabulous through the Meno and beyond! www.menoandme.com Jane regularly talks at events and she offers 1-2-1 personal training sessions. Contact Jane via Skype or at her London Bridge studio. She offers daily tips on her Instagram page https://www.instagram.com/menoandme/?hl=en