Our bodies evolve with age, responding to changes in hormone levels and other factors. The more you know, the more you can adapt to these changes and stay healthy to perform better for longer.
Women’s bodies are changing all the time. The monthly cycle of hormones in the menstrual cycle has a big impact on metabolism, how we process different types of food, energy levels, strength and more. The menstrual cycle itself changes over the course of a woman’s life through from her fertile period in her twenties, thirties and forties, approaching menopause in her forties, and post-menopause from fifty onward.
Then there are other changes that come with age and lifestyle; jobs, families, training, competing, demands on time and money, etc. All of these can affect health in different ways.
This is a snapshot of some of the main health concerns for women at different points in their life, what they should be aware of when training and exercising, and any areas of nutrition they need to pay special attention to.
It’s important at this point in time to ensure you are getting enough energy into your system to balance the energy you are expending through exercise and lifestyle.
For years, it was accepted wisdom that women who did a lot of physical activity would cease to have periods; called amenorrhea. This is most definitely not the case now! With the exception of women with certain conditions or on hormonal contraceptives, the menstrual cycle isn’t just a natural part of womanhood; it’s also an essential indicator of overall health.
A lack of periods indicates that the body isn’t getting enough energy, and is shutting down systems that it deems aren’t essential to survival, such as reproduction. This in turn can indicate serious underlying issues that if left can escalate, and have longer-term negative health implications, such as affecting fertility, bone and immune health.
Good health and good nutrition habits now give your future health a boost. Eat a balanced diet with plenty of fruit, vegetables, carbohydrates and proteins to give you all the nutrients you need. If you’re active, take this into account and eat more to fuel this activity. Listen to your body; give it rest when it needs it, keep it hydrated and keep it fed.
It’s also worth tracking your period, as you may find that you’re stronger or, conversely, more tired and less focused at certain points of your menstrual cycle. With this extra info, you can plan your training around your cycle, ensuring you’re working to your body’s natural strengths.
For many women, the thirties are a busy time often involving more responsibility at work and at home, plus the desire to keep active, competitive and perform to a high level.
All this can make this part of a women’s life another risk point for underestimating the amount of food you need to consume to balance out the energy you’re expending. While you can easily estimate how many calories a 100 mile bike ride or 30 minute run burns, it’s hard to estimate the calories needed for a busy day in the office or looking after a toddler for a weekend.
Tiredness, fatigue and increased susceptibility to illness are other symptoms of a chronic lack of energy availability, which can progress to RED-S (relative energy deficiency in sport) if left unchecked.
As well as ensuring you get a balanced diet, it can also be worth looking into certain supplements to give your nutrient levels a boost if they’re low, such as Vitamins D and B12. Keep calcium levels topped up through dairy, tofu, nuts, bread or fortified soya drinks.
Rest is as important as exercise. Your body needs this time to repair and recover from the stress of life and the stress of exercise. It’s during rest that you actually get those fitness gains as your body builds up your muscles and bones to withstand the activity you’re putting it through. Not enough rest, and it can’t recover properly, which means you won’t see the gains and you won’t be able to perform as well mentally or physically, so ensure you get a good night’s sleep!
If you aren’t already, include recuperative exercise into your routine such as yoga and pilates.
For the time-poor, quality can trump quantity, so being smart with how you train is key. Some women invest in a trainer, either in person or through a distance-training package where they can have a plan tailored to not only their needs but also their lifestyle, ensuring they get a good mix of exercise to work the whole body.
In your late forties, the majority of women become perimenopausal. This is the period in the lead up to the menopause itself as the menstrual cycle becomes irregular and starts to slow.
Behind the scenes during these changes lies a huge amount of hormonal activity, with massive fluctuations in oestrogen, progesterone, LH (luteinizing hormone) and FSH (follicle stimulating hormone).
For more information on the menopause and the perimenopause, have a look at our Menopause Health Check test info.
It’s the rapid change in hormone levels that often trigger the wide range of symptoms, including brain fog, hot flashes and fatigue, associated with the perimenopause. Ensuring your body has plenty of calcium, iron, vitamin D and other micronutrients will help balance out some of those effects.
Because the fluctuations often aren’t regular, it can be hard to plan training around the shifting and slowing menstrual cycle, so you need to be a bit easier on yourself. By all means train, but if you feel like you need rest, make sure you take it.
Exercise doesn’t have to be purely for physical gains, and the mental health benefits of a gentle run or walk outside, a bike ride with friends or regular swimming can do a lot to help manage the mood and emotional impact of these physical changes.
The average age of the menopause is 51, though of course many women will experience it a little earlier or later in life.
The menopause itself is defined as having happened when a woman does not experience menstruation for 12 months continuously. Once this happens, a woman becomes postmenopausal.
At this point, levels of hormones such as oestrogen and progesterone level out, but plateau at a lower level than during the fertile part of a woman’s life. Since these hormones have other important roles in functions such as maintaining bone density, it’s important for postmenopausal women to take action to avoid some of the pitfalls of postmenopausal life, while enjoying the lack of monthly bleeds and the hormone stability.
Continuing to ensure nutrient levels such as iron and calcium are kept topped up through diet is important, as is adding resistance and plyometric training to your lifestyle to mitigate against drops in bone density and muscle mass that often occur with aging, if you haven’t already.
Many women also opt to go on HRT which, if started shortly after the menopause, has minimal adverse effects on long term health and many benefits, including helping to prevent a drop in bone density. It can take a while to work out what hormone levels are right for you, however, so do track your symptoms and responses to HRT using a diary or tracking app so you can keep your doctor informed.
There is absolutely no reason why you can’t keep training, competing and working out in your sixties and older. There are countless stories of time-trialists, weight lifters and yogis with strength, fitness and stamina that would put many younger people to shame.
It’s also never too late to start, so while we recommend getting into good exercise habits young, just because you didn’t doesn’t mean you can’t get into them now and see some dramatic improvements.
Muscle strength and bone density decrease naturally with age, and joint weakness increases, but the good news is that using those muscles and bones regularly can stop and even reverse the decline to some extent.
Weight training is great not just for the muscles but also for helping build bones, as they’ll grow in density in response to the forces placed upon them. Weight training can mean bodyweight, or it can mean free weights or machines. It’s worth working with a trainer if you’ve not done this type of exercise before to ensure your form is good, to prevent injuries.
Exercises that are good for muscles and joints include yoga, ballet, pilates and swimming, providing resistance and movement in multiple directions to keep you supple and strong.
And let’s not forget the nutrition side of things. As before, ensuring you’re taking on the nutrients you need to maintain bone and muscle strength is key, so plenty of calcium, iron, and vitamins C and D.
The body can be less good at processing fats in later life, so ensuring your diet has enough ‘good’ fats from sources such as oily fish while reducing the ‘bad’ fats and types of cholesterol that can clog up the arteries is key.
Keeping active and keeping an eye on sugar and fat levels can also help mitigate the onset of many later-life ailments such as diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis and anxiety and depression.