Exercise helps in achieving a sense of well-being and vitality throughout life’s different phases, one of the most universally applicable strategies appears to be quite straightforward: engaging in physical activity.
While healthcare often brings to mind doctor appointments, preventative measures, medical tests, and vaccinations, there are additional elements within our personal control that can significantly impact our well-being, such as enhancing our dietary habits, managing stress levels, and incorporating enjoyable activities into our routines. Among these controllable factors, exercise stands out as particularly effective in promoting health.
As outlined by the American Academy of Family Physicians, regular physical activity offers a diverse range of health advantages, including the reduction of blood pressure, the lowering of cholesterol levels, decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, prevention of diabetes, enhancement of mood and cognitive abilities, and a decrease in mortality rates. For women, these benefits are even more pronounced due to the interplay of hormones and unique health considerations they face.
Helps Counteract Mood Swings
From the onset of the first menstrual cycle to the onset of menopause, women experience fluctuations in estrogen and progesterone levels, which not only affect their fertility patterns but also influence their brain chemistry and emotional states. When estrogen levels decrease, such as during menstruation or leading up to menopause, women lose a natural source of serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of well-being. This can make them more vulnerable to mood swings, depression, and anxiety, symptoms commonly observed in severe premenstrual syndrome or postpartum depression.
Exercise helps counteract these hormonally-induced mood fluctuations by triggering the release of endorphins, another type of mood regulator. Often referred to as the “runner’s high,” endorphins induce feelings of happiness and relaxation following physical activity.
Dr. Horowitz explains, “It’s our body’s way of substituting one natural chemical for one that is diminishing. For some women, this may reduce or even eliminate the need for serotonin-boosting medications like antidepressants.”
Even after menopause, when estrogen levels have permanently decreased, exercise continues to positively impact mood. A study involving 60 women experiencing postmenopausal anxiety and depression revealed that the group engaging in regular exercise showed an 18 to 22% improvement in symptoms, whereas those who did not exercise experienced no improvement.
Prevents Bone Loss and Osteoporosis
Women face a significantly higher risk than men of developing osteoporosis and experiencing related bone fractures and height loss as they age. According to the Office on Women’s Health, out of 10 million Americans with osteoporosis, 8 million are women, and half of women over 50 with osteoporosis will suffer a fracture. This heightened susceptibility is primarily due to women having thinner bones than men and experiencing a more rapid decline in bone strength as they age, attributed to the loss of estrogen. Hip fractures, which result from osteoporosis, can lead to immobility and premature death.
Engaging in regular exercise is one of the most effective ways to foster strong bones, ideally beginning during younger years. It is during the teenage and young adult phases that women accumulate the majority of their bone mass, which serves as protection against osteoporosis later in life.
Weight-bearing and muscle-strengthening exercises are beneficial for bone health regardless of age. Activities such as tennis, hiking, aerobics, or jogging contribute to bone density and maintenance. Strength training, using resistance bands, or performing simple movements like standing up and rising onto your toes help enhance strength, balance, and flexibility, reducing the risk of falls. It’s important to consult with your doctor, physical therapist, or fitness professional to determine the most suitable and safe exercises based on your age and physical condition.
Keeps Weight in Check
While both men and women tend to experience weight gain with age, women encounter particular challenges. Younger women may find that the weight gained during pregnancy persists long after childbirth. Additionally, as women enter middle age and undergo menopause, the decrease in estrogen levels prompts the body to redistribute fat cells to the abdomen, complicating weight loss efforts. Furthermore, since muscle burns more calories than fat, women may encounter difficulties in maintaining or shedding weight as their muscle mass diminishes over time.
Exercise serves as a potent countermeasure against these factors by assisting women in preserving and building lean muscle mass, thereby enhancing their appearance and sense of wellness. Moreover, exercise aids in burning excess calories that would otherwise be stored as fat. A 20-year study conducted by researchers at Northwestern University, involving 3,500 men and women, revealed that while all participants gained weight with age, those who engaged in regular exercise experienced significantly less weight gain. Women, in particular, benefited, gaining an average of 13 pounds less than their inactive counterparts.
Proper sleep plays a crucial role in maintaining mental health. Research conducted by the University of Bern suggests that during dream sleep, the human brain consolidates positive emotions while weakening negative and traumatic ones.
Fortunately, exercise has proven to be highly effective in enhancing sleep quality. A 2020 study revealed that exercise training improved sleep among sedentary middle-aged adults. Participants were divided into groups following physical activity recommendations from the World Health Organization, engaging in high-intensity interval training (HIIT), or combining HIIT with whole-body electromyostimulation training. Across all groups, participants experienced increased total sleep time, quicker sleep onset, and reduced instances of waking immediately after falling asleep.
Despite these benefits, some women may struggle to prioritize regular exercise due to time constraints or lack of energy. Overcoming this hurdle begins with self-motivation and a commitment to take action. Simply engaging in some form of physical activity, whether alone or with a supportive friend or trainer, can make a difference. It’s important to focus on long-term changes rather than instant results, as these changes contribute to improved health and self-esteem over time.
Discuss with your OB/Gyn or primary care provider how you can seamlessly incorporate exercise into your daily routine for lasting benefits.
Exercise plays a pivotal role in enhancing women’s health across various aspects of well-being. From bolstering bone density to mitigating the challenges of weight management and improving sleep quality, regular physical activity offers a multitude of benefits for women of all ages. It not only helps in maintaining and building lean muscle mass but also contributes to mood regulation and mental health by releasing endorphins and promoting positive emotions during sleep.
While time and energy constraints may pose obstacles, finding motivation and support systems can empower women to incorporate exercise into their daily routines. By prioritizing physical activity and seeking guidance from healthcare professionals, women can embark on a journey toward long-term health and vitality, fostering a sense of empowerment and self-esteem that extends throughout their lives.
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